Gymnasts’ demand for justice is a powerful display of courage and grace

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Marc Morial

 

By MARC H. MORIAL

National Urban League

 

“I sit before you today to raise my voice so that no little girl must endure what I, the athletes at this table, and the countless others who needlessly suffered under Nassar’s guise of medical treatment, which we continue to endure today. We suffered and continue to suffer because no one at the FBI, USAG or the USOPC did what was necessary to protect us. We have been failed, and we deserve answers.”

– U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Champion Simone Biles,

testimony to Senate Judiciary Committee

Just 17 years old in June of 2015, Maggie Nichols disclosed to USA Gymnastics officials that the organization’s team doctor, Larry Nassar, had been molesting her since she was 15. Furthermore, she said she suspected that Nassar was abusing her friend and teammate Simone Biles as well.

USA Gymnastics waited more than a month to report the allegations to the FBI, by which time a private investigator had identified at least six victims, including McKayla Maroney and Aly Raisman. After receiving the report, the FBI did almost nothing. When agents finally scheduled an interview weeks later with McKayla Maroney, then 19, it was only to get USA Gymnastics “off of our back,” according to investigators.

For nearly three hours, Maroney described to FBI agents – over the phone, in graphic detail – the six years of sexual abuse she endured at Nassar’s hands. She called it “the most uncomfortable conversation I had ever had in my life.”

The agents who interviewed her took almost no notes and filed no reports. It would be another year and a half, after an Indianapolis Star investigation brought renewed attention to Nassar, before Nichols, Biles, and Raisman finally were interviewed, and a wildly inaccurate and misleading report of Maroney’s interview was filed.

Despite the trauma of their abuse and betrayal by a system stacked against them at every turn, these four young women found the courage not only to seek justice for themselves and the hundreds of Nassar’s other victims, but also to stand before the U.S. Senate to tell their stories and demand accountability for those who failed them so completely.

The testimony of Biles, Maroney, Nichols and Raisman at last week’s hearing was both heartbreaking and enraging to witness. But it was clear to see that the same fortitude, resilience, and strength of spirit that made them athletic champions also drives their unshakeable quest for justice.

As Department of Justice Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, whose report revealed the dismal failings of the FBI’s Nassar investigation, testified, “These gymnasts showed remarkable bravery by coming forward to detail the shocking sexual assaults that they had endured from a USA Gymnastics medical doctor, Nassar, at the same time they were competing at the highest levels for our country. And, as you also heard today, these athletes reported this abuse with the hope and the belief that their actions would save other young women and girls from the serial abuse that they had endured. Sadly, as our report indicates, the response of the FBI agents who received that information betrayed their law enforcement responsibilities and their duties to these victims.”

It is hard to imagine a more demoralizing, disheartening experience than that which these gymnasts endured. They had every justification to surrender to despair and abandon hope. But they could not walk away from the opportunity to prevent what happened to them from happening to other girls and young women. For that, they deserve not only our admiration and respect, but our every effort to hold those responsible to account.

“Nassar is where he belongs, but those who enabled him deserve to be held accountable,” Biles testified “If they are not, I am convinced that this will continue to happen to others across Olympic Sports … A message needs to be sent: If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.”

 

Marc H. Morial, former mayor of New Orleans, is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He can be reached through https://nul.org.

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