My journalistic scope is usually limited to Michigan athletics, but the most important sports story of the week didn’t happen in Ann Arbor.
It happened in East Lansing.
There have been plenty of voices speaking out about the devastating events of the past week, but I want to add mine to the chorus. I am a woman in a male-dominated field, and as much as this has been treated as a news story, it is also a sports story about female athletes in a male-dominated sphere. A story about sexual assault run rampant and a culture of silence that enabled its existence.
Unfortunately, it is not the first such story. But it is arguably the biggest sports scandal in the history of collegiate athletics. And as such, it has made it clear that this is a reality we have accepted for far too long. We cannot afford to continue to do so any longer.
After a year in which histories of sexual abuse throughout the entertainment and media industries entered public consciousness in harrowing fashion, the sports landscape seemed to escape relatively unscathed. But what is done in the dark always eventually comes out into the light.
It has been a week of reckoning for the Michigan State athletic department.
Last Wednesday, former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for first-degree sexual misconduct — on top of his 60-year federal sentence on charges of child pornography. In an Ingham County courthouse, upon the order of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, justice was served. But that shouldn’t be the only repercussion.
One hundred and fifty-six women, survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of the formerly famed physician and their families, dug deep and delivered detailed accounts of the pain they have suffered over the past three decades. Those women shed light on medical appointments that turned into sites of molestation, traumatic memories that haunt them to this very day and a flawed athletic system that kept them silent until now.
Their testimonies were called impact statements inside the courthouse. They have certainly lived up to that billing outside of it as well.
Branding themselves as an army of survivors, those women put the country on notice to a dangerous mentality that circulates throughout the sports landscape. As one of the most popular structures in our society, sports have frequently been given a pass when defamatory incidents garner national attention, whether in regard to domestic violence, drunk driving or sexual assault. And that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Stories are written and soon forgotten. Cases are reported and later discarded. Realities are acknowledged and then ignored. As much as institutions shoulder the blame, we should share in it.
The truth is that we all have turned a blind eye, pretending that those faults don’t exist or that they don’t matter. After all, it is easier to stomach a heartbreaking loss in a championship game than a star player raping a fellow student the night before.
In the case of the team doctor who molested young girls under the guise of medical treatment, the army of survivors once had their voices stripped away from them as well. Their innocence was masked as ignorance in order to manipulate them.
In a highly competitive sport where one misstep can be the difference between a gold medal around a neck or a red target on a back, they fell victim to the culture of silence. Hidden in the locked rooms of the arena is a fertile breeding ground for powerful men to take advantage of vulnerable girls.
After the moving accounts delivered in that courthouse, it is now nearly impossible to brush off the gravity of the situation. Michigan State learned that the hard way.
Longtime university president Lou Anna Simon stepped down Wednesday night after the state’s House of Representatives put pressure on the school’s Board of Trustees. Athletic director Mark Hollis did the same Friday morning, after he learned of a forthcoming report from ESPN’s Outside the Lines that uncovered a disturbing pattern of sexual abuse and insidious denial in his athletic department. Based on its contents, football coach Mark Dantonio and men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo could also potentially be implicated in the far-reaching scandal.
That might not even be the end of the ramifications for the university, particularly after its Board of Trustees’ insultingly brazen response to Nassar’s sentencing hearing. Last Tuesday, vice chairman Joel Ferguson claimed that, “There’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing,” before the whole board apologized for its “collective inaction” Friday.
Due to rising public outrage over its part in enabling Nassar, the United States Olympic Committee demanded that the entire board of directors of USA Gymnastics resign. Friday, they complied. Michigan State’s board may yet be forced to follow suit.
As encouraging as those developments are, there is still much work to be done to combat one of the most sinister epidemics in our society. If we are serious about addressing the havoc that sexual assault has wreaked across the country, then it’s time for the punishment to fit the crime.
Nassar isn’t the only one who deserves jail time. It’s time for his accomplices to face the same fate.
Michigan State covered up allegations of sexual abuse for three decades, the extent of which still isn’t fully known. University officials protected a criminal, and those individuals need to be held accountable for their actions.
Someday, they — whoever they are and however many there are — need to sit in that Ingham County courthouse and receive a sentence for the crimes they allowed to happen. That is the only way to send a message that this behavior will not be tolerated.
Because this isn’t just about Michigan State.
Aly Raisman, who won two Olympic gold medals for the United States as part of the “Fierce Five” in 2012 and the “Final Five” in 2016, said it best in her impact statement.
“My dream is that one day, everyone will know what the words ‘me too’ signify,” she said. “But they will be educated and able to protect themselves from predators like (Nassar), so that they will never, ever, ever have to say the words, ‘me too.’ ”
The culture of silence in sports has gone on for far too long.
Ashame can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @betelhem_ashame.