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Sexual Abuse Of Gymnasts May Be Tip Of Iceberg, Report Says

 Statue of Blind Justice on the front of the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
Statue of Blind Justice on the front of the Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia. Photo by Tim Evanson via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We begin today with a warning. Today’s subject matter is of a mature nature, so you might want to let your kids sit this program out.

Just when it seemed that we had plumbed the depths of degradation created by former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard testimony last week that added more layers to the crisis.

Simone Biles, Aly Raissman, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols, all once and former gymnasts, recounted the horrors they faced at the hands of Nassar, who is serving a jail sentence of from 40 to 175 years.

Nassar is believed to have abused anywhere from 70 to 120 gymnasts left in his care during the 18 years he was the team doctor for the women’s national team, not to mention the time he performed the same duties at Michigan State University.

The quartet not only laid blame on Nassar, but also upon agents and officials at the FBI, who were apparently told about the abuse as far back as 2015.

FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized profusely for the bureau’s lack of action, saying officials "are going to make damn sure that everybody at the FBI remembers what happened here in heartbreaking detail. We need to remember the pain that occurred when our folks failed to do their jobs."

But the job is far from complete, according to data from a recent digital survey of adults under the age of 45 who attended public or private universities and participated in athletics.

The survey, conducted in June among 800 former student-athletes, found that nearly 25 percent of the respondents reported they were sexually harassed or assaulted by someone in a position of power.

That figure is significantly higher than the 10 percent of the general population reporting, according to Lauren’s Kids, the non-profit organization that looks to inform kids and parents about sexual violence.

The report found that athletes were 2.5 times more likely to say they encountered the abuse and that coaches were the most likely to be the abusers.

Only one in four of the athletes reported the abuse to administrators, with nearly half saying they feared reprisals. Almost 40 percent of the respondents said they were worried that their scholarships would be yanked if they spoke up.

In recent years, officials at Ohio State and the University of Michigan have become identified as centers where abuse was allowed to flourish.

At both places, just as at Michigan State, the mistreatment allegedly came at the hands of doctors and for extended periods.

At Ohio State, for instance, Richard Strauss, who died in 2005, may have abused athletes going back as far as 1979, when reports were first recorded.

Meanwhile, Michigan officials may have known about conduct committed by Robert Anderson, who died in 2008, all the way back to 1968, when he started working there.

The two schools are involved in numerous lawsuits from former athletes, but no one should believe this conduct was restricted to Midwestern universities.

We’ll likely be hearing stories like that of the gymnasts for years to come. How we respond will tell future athletes whether we care about more than their ability to compete.

And that’s how I see it for this week.

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.