“Athlete A” Uncovers A Culture of Abuse. How Can Sport Organizations Prevent Abuse?

Young athletes love their sport, and youth and parents place trust in coaches, trainers, and sport organization officials to foster safe environments for personal and athletic development for youth. But what happens when sport organizations and their leaders don’t prioritize the young athletes themselves, instead gripping tightly to a “victory at all costs” mindset? USA Gymnastics (USAG) did just that, setting the stage for abuse in various forms — emotional, mental, physical, and sexual — to flourish, traumatizing the young athletes while USAG raked in profits and medals. A new documentary, Athlete A, exposes this system of abuse and how survivors of Larry Nassar and other abuse at the hands of USAG led to a national reckoning on child sexual abuse in sports. The film also highlights the work of Indy Star investigative journalists to support and believe survivors and amplify their stories.

Sexual violence does not happen in a vacuum, and the culture around USAG and elite gymnastics was an incubator for abuse. Athlete A highlights what sexual violence preventionists have long known: social norms and cultural environments can either foster sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, or they can foster healthy, thriving connection and community. USAG did the former.

The documentary gives first-hand accounts of survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse and gymnasts who witnessed other abuses within USAG and elite gymnastics circles. Maggie Nichols, Jamie Dantzscher, Rachel Denhollander, Jennifer Sey, and additional survivors recount the multiple abuses they faced at the hands of Larry Nassar and how top USAG officials like the Karolyis and USAG president Steve Penny silenced survivors and orchestrated a cover-up to protect the organization over young athletes. The film highlights how a slew of risk factors brewed to create a toxic environment that allowed Larry Nassar to abuse hundreds, potentially thousands, of children and young women athletes. Between shifting the age of initiation of training to be much, much younger and recruiting young girls to the sport, to organizational leadership and structures that put profit and medals above athlete safety and dignity, the culture of elite gymnastics was ripe for abuse, with coaches and trainers adopting a standard of cruelty for training athletes. This left the door wide open for sexual abusers like Lassy Nassar to groom girls and young athletes for repeated sexual assault.

Athlete A exposes the harmful culture that allowed Lassy Nassar to abuse hundreds of girls and young women athletes. USAG followed a “what not to do” to prevent sexual violence within youth-serving organizations and sports environments. How can sports organizations ensure they protect their athletes from sexual assault? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Adopt organizational policies that promote respect and listening to and believing survivors
  • Follow the lead of guidance for youth-serving organizations, like this guidance from the CDC that outlines the need for screening and monitoring behaviors between adults and youth
  • Train adults working with youth on prevention and response to child sexual abuse and create organizational norms that support and believe survivors and center the autonomy and safety of youth

The website AthleteAFilm.com has additional prevention resources for families, organizations, and journalists working to create safer environments and prevent abuse of children in sports, as well as a discussion guide for viewing the film. Athlete A is now streaming on Netflix. RALIANCE continues to be a resource for those looking to prevent sexual violence in sport and use sport as a platform for culture change to prevent abuse. Visit the Sport + Prevention Center for additional resources.