How Larry Nassar's Abuse Went On For So Long
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This past week, the more than 160 women and girls who were abused by former gymnastics Dr. Larry Nassar saw justice served. But while he has been sentenced to up to 175 years in prison, many questions remain. How could these horrific assaults go on for so long? And who turned a blind eye? A warning to our listeners - some parts of this discussion are upsetting and graphic. John Barr's been reporting on these questions for ESPN's "Outside The Lines" and on the structures that may have protected Nassar at USA Gymnastics and at Michigan State, where Nassar operated his sports medicine practice. John Barr joins us now. Thank you so much.
JOHN BARR: My pleasure.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I think the question on everyone's mind is, how was Nassar allowed to keep working and getting referrals? There were investigations over the years. There was even a Title IX investigation at Michigan State. Athletes began telling officials at the school about the abuse beginning in 1997. And yet here we are.
BARR: The reality is this man was surrounded by a network of enablers for more than a quarter century. It began when he first started as an athletic trainer back in the late '80s. And it went all the way up until he was caught back in September of 2016. Of course, we all know now Rachael Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse him of sexual assault during a medical exam. And her report led to a flood of similar complaints.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right - use this word a network of enablers. Does that mean that there were people who knew what he was doing and helped him? Or does it mean that there were people who simply did not believe the evidence that they were presented with?
BARR: I think it's both. Take one example - John Geddert, the head coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. John Geddert and Larry Nassar were inseparable.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I think a former athlete described them as the perfect storm.
BARR: Yeah, because the gymnastics world, when you get to the elite level, is so incredibly demanding. And these young women - young girls, really - are pushed to the limit. They get injured. But they also get broken down mentally. And John Geddert was recently suspended by USA Gymnastics. You know, we know that he was reported for assault and battery. But we also know that he allowed Larry Nassar in the backroom of his first gym, Great Lakes Gymnastics, in the '80s, and then his gym that he recently was suspended from, Twistars, for more than 25 years. It wasn't just...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Does he say that he knows?
BARR: Well, the - one of the plaintiffs has alleged that she was being digitally penetrated in the backroom of Twistars and that John Geddert walked in when it was happening. And the young woman had just a towel draped over her as Larry Nassar was performing this, quote, unquote, "procedure." And John Geddert made a comment that her back must really be hurting.
Now, does she definitively know that Geddert knew what was happening to her at the time? No, she does not go to that level. But there were a number of gymnasts who reported Geddert for assault. And oftentimes, it was Larry Nassar who would step in and vouch for him at those moments when his profession - when Geddert's professional career was in jeopardy.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: They were covering up for each other, essentially.
BARR: They were covering up for each other, essentially.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's alleged.
BARR: It is what's been alleged. But it's sort of symbolic of how Larry Nassar's career went.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. I'd like to look at something else. During the FBI investigation, some victims and families were apparently asked to keep quiet by Steve Penny, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics at the time.
BARR: Yeah, that's right. We know that in June of 2015, Maggie Nichols was speaking with Aly Raisman - who's been on two gold medal-winning teams - at the Karolyi Ranch. Maggie Nichols' coach overheard, and they were talking about what was going on during the exams with Larry Nassar. And the coach, Sarah Jantzi, was concerned enough that she reported it to USA Gymnastics.
It was more than a year before the FBI actually got around to interviewing many of these gymnasts. So the big question is, when USA Gymnastics finally did go to the FBI, what did USA Gymnastics report to the FBI? Because if they reported that young women were being abused during medical exams, well, you would think that the FBI would jump all over that.
BARR: But that's not what happened.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: How does all of what we know add up to an ingrained system that protected Nassar, as opposed to young athletes? The support and encouragement to trust this man was so widespread that some of the abuse even occurred while parents were in the room.
BARR: Yeah, and it's pretty chilling to hear young women and their parents describe that. He was very adept at grooming not only the young women but their parents. And he would position his body in such a way and drape a - oftentimes, a sheet or a towel over the gymnast or other young women that he was treating in such a way that the parent couldn't get a full view of what it is he was doing. And many of these survivors are - were young women who had never had a sexual experience.
They're in there with a doctor who's got walls plastered with Olympic memorabilia. So their sense was, surely, this can't be sexual because my mom's in the room, you know? That's how they processed it at the time. And frankly, many of these women didn't really fully come to understand this as abuse until late 2016, when Larry Nassar's name was plastered all over the news.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And coaches were telling them that these were legitimate procedures.
BARR: That's right. But, you know, I've interviewed four women who reported Larry Nassar to either athletic trainers or coaches at Michigan State in the late '90s. Under the Michigan reporting laws, they are mandated reporters. They're mandated to report sex abuse, and they didn't.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've just seen the board of USA Gymnastics be forced to resign. Who's left in place that is under the cloud of suspicion?
BARR: Well, Kerry Perry is the new president and CEO of USA Gymnastics. She took over from Steve Penny, who was - who left the position after much criticism for the way he handled this. There's going to be all new faces at USA Gymnastics. And - but, you know, the reality is this. You know, you can implement every policy you want implemented. If it's not followed, if it's not policed, you know, this could happen again.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: John Barr, reporter for ESPN, thank you so much.
BARR: You're welcome.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.