Inspiring ‘Athlete A’ Shows Strength of Young Women, Dogged Journalists
In this unreal time of global pandemic, civil unrest, economic depression and a president who views the press (and apparently not Russia) as the enemy, U.S. journalists could certainly use a collective hug.
As pointed out in a perceptive, poignant New York Times column Monday, a staggering 7,800 journalists lost their jobs in 2019, according to Business Insider. Once the pandemic hit, another 36,000 media-company employees got the pink slip. And all these disasters came on top of losses that collectively cost American newsrooms half their journalists between 2008 and 2019.
After I was laid off nearly four months ago, I was somewhat heartened to learn (while starting to freelance) that the media was exempted from Illinois’ “stay-at-home” order post-shutdown, deeming us an “essential” service. Having been in the business 34 years, I can truly say journalism is an invaluable public service – a common saying is it’s our job to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
I see some of the paramount responsibilities to hold people, agencies, and governments accountable – to ensure they’re acting responsibly, in serving the public, and to reflect the triumphs and tragedies of our communities. These hallmarks of journalism are again demonstrated with clarity, perseverance and whopping emotional power in the new Netflix documentary, “Athlete A.”
In the grand, storied tradition of other newsrooms that took down powerful men and intimidating institutions (see: Washington Post and Watergate; Boston Globe and the Catholic Church; Miami Herald and Jeffrey Epstein; New Yorker/New York Times and Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo), “Athlete A” introduces us to the sickening scandal of Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics and their amoral, handsy team doctor, Larry Nassar.
A dogged, persistent team of journalists at the Indianapolis Star are the sympathetic, humble heroes (“just doing our jobs”) of the new doc, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Through their eyes, we learn the hopeful-turned-horrifying stories of young girls trying to live out their gymnastic dreams, only to encounter nightmares they could never imagine.
In Indy in August 2016, the excellent Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, and Marisa Kwiatkowski reported a story in which predatory gymnastics coaches had been moved from gym to gym (as predatory priests were moved from parish to parish), but never charged with a crime.
Their harrowing story revealed that USAG protected coaches, and often broke the law by failing to report allegations of abuse to authorities. Sound familiar, Catholics?
Former competitive gymnast Rachael Denhollander read the explosive Indy Star article and thought “Now’s the time,” according to the Netflix synopsis. She called the paper about the sexual abuse she suffered at the (literal) hands of Larry Nassar. National Rhythmic gymnastics champion Jessica Howard read the same article and also called the paper with a similar account of abuse.
Another gymnast, Olympian Jamie Dantzcher, spoke to her attorney who also contacted The Star regarding her Nassar allegations.
Minnesota native embodies the highs and lows
“Athlete A” smartly focuses the dramatic arc of its 104-minute running time on Maggie Nichols, a small-town Minnesota native from whom the film gets its title. She started gymnastics at 3, and in the documentary explains the unique thrill and high she experiences in the sport.
We also see the exhausting drive, dedication and determination it takes to really become an outstanding gymnast, which Nichols is.
She qualified for her first national championship at 13. Over the next five years, she earned silver and bronze medals in U.S. all-around competitions, as well as bronze medals in uneven bars and floor exercise.
Nichols’ coach, Sarah Jantzi, contacted USA Gymnastics on June 17, 2015, to report Nassar’s “sexual abuse/ sexually inappropriate treatment” of Maggie, according to a letter submitted to a U.S. Senate subcommittee. He massaged her groin area, with ungloved hands, unsupervised, while treating the teen Maggie for a knee injury.
Nichols later sued USA Gymnastics, claiming the organization failed to adequately supervise Nassar, failed to protect her and compromised her health and safety, federal court records show. USA Gymnastics denied any wrongdoing.
In the film, we see her humiliation compounded in 2016, as she stood to the side of the mat at the Olympic trials in San Jose, Calif., and listen while her name was not called to become part of the U.S. women’s team at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Despite performing better than another named to the team, was she being punished for complaining?
Her dumbfounded parents are featured in “Athlete A,” shocked as the rest of us.
On Aug. 4, 2016, one day before the Rio Olympics opened, IndyStar published the first report in a series titled “Out of Balance.” Two former USA Gymnastics officials admitted under oath that the organization routinely dismissed sexual abuse allegations as hearsay unless they came directly from a victim or victim’s parent.
In addition to the cavalier, quirky Nassar (who was once lauded as comforting and popular among athletes), USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny emerges as a prime, slimy villain in this tale.
“Athlete A” shows that up to 500 young women were abused by Nassar, and reveals the incredible poise and courage of the survivors – led by Nichols, Denhollander, Dantzscher and Howard, who bravely fought the system. Together with three other determined women — police detective Lt. Andrea Munford, prosecuting attorney Angela Povilaitis and Judge Rosemarie Aquilina — truth and justice prevailed.
Nassar, now 56, began working for USA Gymnastics in 1986 and abuse allegations dated to the ‘90s. He lost his longtime job at Michigan State University in September 2016, and was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison in July 2017 after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. On Jan. 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in a Michigan state prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors.
That February, he was sentenced to an additional 40 to 125 years in prison after pleading guilty to an additional three counts of sexual assault. In January 2018, every member of USA Gymnastics’ board of directors resigned in the wake of testimony from more than 250 women against Nassar.
One of the chief satisfactions of “Athlete A” is to see several survivors confront him in court.
“What is a girl worth?”
Denhollander – an attorney, advocate, and author of “What is a Girl Worth?” (2019) — was the first to allow her name to be used in IndyStar interviews about the case and is very impressive in the film. She was cited by Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis during sentencing.
“Without that first Indianapolis Star story in August 2016; without the story where Rachael came forward publicly shortly thereafter — he would still be medicine, practicing treating athletes and abusing kids. … Let that sink in for a minute,” Povilaitis said.
The major expose featuring Denhollander was published Sept. 12, 2016. The film reveals how many more spoke up about Nassar after seeing it.
Denhollander’s book (subtitled “My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics”), came out last September.
According to the directors’ statement on the film website, they were familiar with Nassar’s crimes, but learned they were “the tip of an iceberg,” that the cover-up of abuse perpetrated by staff of USA Gymnastics had been going on for decades (isn’t there always a cover-up?)
Before “Athlete A,” Cohen and Shenk directed “Audrie & Daisy,” a film about the sexual assault and subsequent bullying of high school girls. “As parents, we were floored by the experience of getting to know the families of the survivors,” they wrote. “We are also big fans of films such as ‘All The President’s Men’ and ‘Spotlight,’ which highlight the heroic work of journalists.”
“Fact-finding is difficult, painstaking work. Speaking out against your abuser is frightening and painful,” the directors wrote. “ ‘Athlete A’ is a marriage of these two worlds. We were privileged to be entrusted with the opportunity to document this special collaboration between journalists and key survivors.”
“Those in power first took advantage of and later attempted to silence scores of young athletes. Fortunately, these athletes and their supporters reminded us once again of the power of human potential by speaking truth to power.”
Thankfully, for their work the IndyStar team won the 2018 O’Brien Fellowship Award for Impact in Public Service Journalism, from the American Society of News Editors. The O’Brien Award “recognizes public service work that helps solve community or societal issues and leads to changes in laws, regulations or other demonstrated results,” according to officials. The winners each earned $2,500 for winning the award, sponsored by the fellowship at Marquette University in Milwaukee.
The Star published this follow-up on the scandal on June 24, 2020
Finding joy after despair
Nichols was able to find joy in the sport again, at the college level, at the University of Oklahoma. In 2017, she was NCAA team and uneven bars champion; in 2018 the NCAA all-around, uneven bars & floor exercise champion and team & balance beam silver medalist, and in 2019 the NCAA team, all-around & vault champion and uneven bars silver medalist.
Earlier this year, the 22-year-old Nichols, a senior at Oklahoma, had plans to cement her spot as one of the greatest NCAA gymnasts of all time, ESPN reported. She was ranked No. 1 in the nation in the all-around and on vault. She was ready to help lead the Sooners to a second-straight NCAA championship and prepared to win her third straight all-around national title.
But on March 12, as sporting events across the country had been affected by Covid-19, she learned the last regular-season meet of the year, a sold-out event at the University of Minnesota (just miles from where she grew up), had been called off. She’s still a champ.
What about Steve Penny? He resigned from USAG in 2017, and as “Athlete A” shows, Penny testified before a Senate subcommittee in June 2018 about the scandal. He didn’t give much testimony, though. Rather, he pleaded the Fifth Amendment to every question he was asked (much like similar douche Jeffrey Epstein did in depositions in another depressing Netflix doc, “Filthy Rich”).
In October 2018, Penny was arrested in a Tennessee cabin for allegedly tampering with evidence in the Nassar case. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, the Associated Press reported at the time. His attorney claimed he didn’t know about the abuse. He was freed shortly after, when he posted a $20,000 bond.
A day after his arrest, USA Gymnastics banned Penny from the sport for his alleged actions, the Orange County Register reported.
Earlier this year, USA Gymnastics asked Nassar survivors to accept a settlement agreement which would release Penny and others at the top from legal claims, the Orange County Register reported in February.
“This is the most disgusting, reprehensible, vile view of children I can imagine. And for (USA Gymnastics) to put this out there and act like it is a constructive step shows how out of touch they are,” John Manly, an attorney for several Nassar survivors (also featured in the film), told the outlet. “Steve Penny was so bad USA Gymnastics banned him for life, the Karolyis, every one of them, and they pay nothing. They have no consequences. What message does that send to the next Steve Penny? The message is you get off scot free.”
What may be even sadder than the abuse so many have suffered at the hands of these power-hungry pricks is that the organization to which they should be accountable, too often protects the criminal rather than the people they’re supposed to serve and shield from harm.
Rather than face his term of justice, Jeffrey Epstein, 66, died in his jail cell on Aug. 10, 2019 (ruled a suicide).
The “Athlete A” site also includes a helpful Online Discussion Guide, that provides a framework and resources to help audiences dig deeper into this story by focusing on key areas:
- How multiple institutions and individuals failed to protect children;
- How investigative journalists uncovered this story and provided unbiased and accurate reporting;
- How the justice system held Larry Nassar accountable and continues to pursue ways to hold others complicit in these crimes accountable;
- And to support and uplift the voices of survivors.
The current CEO of USA Gymnastics released this statement upon the release of the film, which says in part –
“We are deeply committed to learning from the mistakes of the past and the mishandling of the horrific abuse perpetrated by Larry Nassar. In order to do that, we must listen with open hearts to Maggie Nichols’ story, and the experiences of other survivors, so that we can truly understand the impact it had, and the circumstances that led to it and enabled it for too long.”
“Athlete A” is a stellar film summary of the sweeping work done by the great Indy journalists. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take reporters to uncover future abuses and injustices, and instead stopped and solved much earlier. Or, people could just, you know, BEHAVE.