Explain This to Me

Charles Pierce has an article at Sports Illustrated about the sentencing of Dr. Larry Nassar, the former team physician for USA gymnastics, to 40-175 years in prison. Pierce being Pierce:

Burn it all down. That is the calm and reasoned conclusion to which I have come as one horror story after another unspooled in the courtroom. Nobody employed in the upper echelons at USA Gymnastics, or at the United States Olympic Committee, or at Michigan State University should still have a job. If accessorial or conspiracy charges plausibly can be lodged against those people, they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Those people should come out of civil courts wearing barrels. Their descendants should be answering motions in the 22nd Century. In fact, I can argue convincingly that none of those three institutions should continue to exist in its current form. USA Gymnastics and the USOC should lose their non-profit status forthwith. Michigan State should lose its status within the NCAA for at least five years. American gymnastics is no longer a sport. It’s a conspiracy of pedophiles and their enablers. … No punishment is too harsh for the inhabitants of this universe of ghouls and gargoyles to which these brave young women were condemned.  Burn it all down. Salt the earth so it never rises again.

One might have assumed that, maybe, other people at USA Gymnastics simply didn’t realize what was going on. However, consider the testimony of Aly Raisman, who is the winner of three Olympic gold medals.

“A few days ago, U.S.A. Gymnastics put out a statement attributed to its president and C.E.O., Kerry Perry, saying she came to listen to the courageous women and said, “Their powerful voices leave an indelible imprint on me and will impact my decisions as president and C.E.O. every day,” Raisman continued. “This sounds great, Ms. Perry, but at this point talk is cheap. You left midway through the day and no one has heard from you or the board. Kerry, I have never met you, and I know you weren’t around for most of this. But you accepted the position of president and C.E.O. of U.S.A. Gymnastics, and I assume by now you are very well aware of the weighty responsibility you’ve taken on.

“Unfortunately, you’ve taken on an organization that I feel is rotting from the inside, and while this may not be what you thought you were getting into, you will be judged by how you deal with it. A word of advice: continuing to issue empty statements of empty promises, thinking that will pacify us, will no longer work. Yesterday, U.S.A. Gymnastics announced that it was terminating its lease at the ranch where so many of us were abused. I’m glad that it is no longer a national team training site, but U.S.A. Gymnastics neglected to mention that they had athletes training there the day they released the statement.”

She wasn’t finished.

“Why have I and the others here probably not heard anything from the leadership of the U.S.O.C.? Why has the U.S. Olympic Committee been silent? Why isn’t the U.S.O.C. here right now?,” Raisman asked. “Larry was the Olympic doctor and he molested me at the 2012 London Olympic Games. They say now they applaud those who have spoken out, but it’s easy to say that now. When the brave women started speaking out back then, more than a year after the U.S.O.C. says they knew about Nassar, they were dismissed.

“At the 2016 Olympic Games, the president of the U.S.O.C. said that the U.S.O.C. would not conduct an investigation. It even defended U.S.A. Gymnastics as one of the leaders in developing policies to protect athletes. That’s the response a courageous woman gets when she speaks out? And when others joined those athletes and began speaking out with more stories of abuse, were they acknowledged? No. It is like being abused all over again. I have represented the United States of America in two Olympics and have done so successfully. And both U.S.A. Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee have been very quick to capitalize on and celebrate my success. But did they reach out when I came forward? No.”

I sincerely and honestly don’t understand this. I’m not the least bit curious about Larry Nassar; I want to know why it is people protect abusers like him? And notice it isn’t just men protecting him. Pierce also said that the Michigan State gymnastics coach  “tried to coerce her athletes into signing a card to support Nassar when the first charges began to come down. This is unfathomable to me. I believe it also would be unfathomable to Vlad the Impaler.”

All these officials enjoy the prestige and income of being associated with world-class athletes. You’d think they would care about the athletes. Surely it’s easier to dismiss and replace a team doctor than to replace Olympic gold medal contenders. Yet their first reaction is to protect the doctor and throw the athletes under the bus.

Why? That makes absolutely no sense. Even assuming everyone in USA Gymnastics and the USOC is a cold-hearted sociopath, why was it in their interest to protect the doctor and not the athletes?

Maybe they somehow hoped the whole thing would go away, but considering the lot of these people and probably their organizations will be spending a large part of the rest of their lives dealing with civil suits, again, you would think it would have been in their own best interest to cut ties with Nassar as soon as the first complaint was made.

I will say one thing for these young women — considering the abuse was going on while they were competing in the highest level world competitions, under huge spotlights, in a sport where a slipped foot on the beam or slight miscalculation on the bars could result in devastating injury — boy howdy, they must have nerves of steel.  But I do wonder about young women with just as much talent but less nerve, who might have washed out of the program because of Nassar.

And, of course, it’s not just gymnasts, and it’s not just young women. Institutions close ranks around their own. But particularly when the very commodity that is the entire purpose of the institution is being abused, why is the reaction always to protect the abuser? And how can we change that?

28 thoughts on “Explain This to Me

    • Pierce didn’t say ALL institutions should be destroyed. Institutions are an inevitable part of civilization, and if you want to go back to living in caves be my guest, but destroying all institutions isn’t practical.

  1. What most often happens when an ordinary employee threatens an institutional star power is that the ordinary employee's career prospects are damaged ("not a team player" , "bad attitude" , "creates managment problems" ) and the institutional star is warned to cover their tracks. That's a barrier that was challenged over and over again at MSU, and which held until recently.

    Whistleblowers are not loved in any institution, even if they succeed, and more often than not, they are stifled.

    Especially, of course, if the whistleblower is a woman

    Several someones in the middle seem to have "protected" the President and the Board from ever hearing about the allegations coming from below, and stifled the allegations. This kind of ass-covering for the institution is the very essence of one kind of bad midddle management, which is unfortunately very common.

    I'm guessing that they thought the risk of exposing the institution to bad publicity and the career costs of doing so were more important than the lives of the victims, and rationalized (to themselves) that the victims claims were overblown, or stemmed from an isolated incident, etc.  

    Motivated "reasoning" is very powerful.


    • I can almost understand protecting the abuser when the abuser is the star money-maker in an organization. It’s still wrong, but in a dollars-and-cents sense one can understand the urge to squelch the accusations. But in this case it was the abused who were the star money-makers. All these people were living off the work and talent of the young women.

  2. The athletes are fungible; they go away in four years, and others come in.   The star "Olympic gymnastic training physician" was  a persistent asset, useful in convincing the next group of hopeful young women that MSU was the place to advance their gymnastic careers.

    Pretty much all big-time college athletics is horribly exploitive of the actual athletes, and is run for the benefit of everybody else involved.

  3. "But in this case it was the abused who were the star money-makers. All these people were living off the work and talent of the young women."

    Exactly and thank you for defining who the victims were.  US society is pretty effed up, and this is one of the many ways.  Tribal dynamics take smart people to see successful outcomes.

  4. Those people should come out of civil courts wearing barrels. Their descendants should be answering motions in the 22nd Century. In fact, I can argue convincingly that none of those three institutions should continue to exist in its current form.

    He's right.  All the more true, of course, of the institution which has by far the worst global track record of producing and shielding similar abusers — the Catholic Church.

  5. I distinguish between corrupt incompetence – the normal mode of institutional moral failure – and incompetent corruption. The former protects the institution while betraying its mission; the latter fails both. Maha wonders why the incompetent corruption in this case. Well, much the same happened with the Catholic Church; they covered up in a way guaranteed to fail. Perhaps an institution rises on corrupt incompetence, but eventually it reaches its level of incompetent corruption, and fails.


    • Star, product, same thing. Either one, the athletes are the commodity that is the entire reason for being for the organization. The athletes, directly or indirectly, create their jobs and pay their salaries.

  6. Exactly. The entire purpose of the organization is to extract maximum value from the commodity; and it is structured accordingly. This structure necessarily implies abuse of the product/star. Such practices are exploitative and irrational, from the commodity's point of view; but these practices work fine for the organization, until they don't.

  7. So for instance, Raisman was inappropriately touched by Nassar, as part of 'therapy'. Therapy for what? No doubt muscle pain, caused by over-training. Cure: reduce the training. But that would not fit the organization's business model. The star/product is expected to self-injure to compete. Her abuse started before Nassar showed up on her doorstep.

    From the Tao Teh Ching, chapter 5:

    "Heaven and Earth are not humane / They treat people like straw dogs"

    – meaning, disposable. Briefly honored, then thrown out. In this the Olympics are like Heaven and Earth.

    • paradoctor — No, you’re not getting it. We’re talking about sexual exploitation here. He wasn’t just rubbing them in an inappropriate way; he was having sex with some of them. He was exposing himself and masturbating in front of them. And young women started complaining about him going back to the 1990s.

      It’s true that athletes are expected to push themselves past the normal limits of the human body, and some sports in particular — boxing, football — are being called out for causing permanent head injuries. In the case of the young women gymnasts, however, whether their training constitutes “abuse” is something to be debated, since they are doing it voluntarily and apparently love the sport. It would be abusive if they were being forced to do something they didn’t want to do or if it left them with permanent injury. So far, the only abuse I’m hearing about was done by Nassar, and that had nothing whatsoever to do with preparing them for competition. So your explanation doesn’t apply here. What you are describing is a separate issue.

  8. Revelations started with the Catholic Church, but any large human gathering will have these kinds of people, and any organization with children will attract these kinds of people.  I know I have to jump through hoops to work with children in my area, but many organizations do not have much, if any, screening, and if no one reports any improprieties (to lump a multitude of behaviors into one term) then even the best screening is not effective.  As a coach, I'm a mandatory reporter and go through extensive training to spot problems, but too often the perps cover their tracks and use threats to silence the victims. 

    Just looking at kids it is nearly impossible to distinguish normal personality variance from response to abuses of any kind except in the most extreme cases or perhaps with decades of specific training and close one-on-one observations unless someone steps forward and is believed.

  9. Institutions are paranoid to the nth degree about their image and reputation. Both of the previous are linked to funding, profitability, and salaries. Not to mention job survival. The CEO who is willing to address a culture of male superiority should get credit for reform, but if the CEO is a he, the response by the board is likely to be to blame the CEO for the scandal and blame him. If the CEO is a woman, the scandal will be her 'extreme' feminist views – and the problem will also be solved by executing the messenger. And burying the message.

    The media has the chance to be the vehicle of reform and they have been stepping up in the role. Image and reputation are damaged even MORE when the scandal erupts in the media as a cover-up by the institution. This is what has moved the Catholic Church after who-knows-how-many centuries of abuse of children by the officials of the church.

    Possibly negotiations between a prospective CEO and the board will include discussions about protection for the CEO who is charged with actually delivering an environment free of harassment and abuse. Doing that job – for real – should not be a ticket to the unemployment line. 

  10. I think I can explain it, but it's not a happy explanation.

    The idea is to avoid, then to minimize, the scandal. And as it gets deeper, people have to double down because it will be that much worse if it gets out.

    Now, part of it is what I think of "storytelling". We don't have a lot of good stories about "Athletic association finds sexual predator in their midst, investigates, and hands the SOB over to the police." If we did, things would work a bit better.

    To take a ridiculously underblown example: the dominant story in "white person says something racist, that they didn't intend, or realize is racist" is "white person is terrible," not "white person says "I'm sorry, I didn't intend to say something like that," maybe with "can you explain that to me?"

    Cam Newton shows that particular one might be changing. When he laughed at a Jourdan Rodrigue mentioning "routes", from what I heard of the aftermath, he was caught off guard, never having heard *any* journalist asking him about routes, and said something that had more meaning than he intended.

    (Imagine this: what if he was delighted to have someone ask him about routes – and what if he was pleasantly surprised that it wasn't one of the "old boys club," but was, in fact, a woman showing she knew more than those old boys. I'm not saying that's what he *did* feel – but it could have led to him saying the same thing, without realizing it would sound like a woman *shouldn't* know about routes.)

    Okay where was I? Right. Stories. The dominant storyline is, big scandal hits, bit costs are incurred, and the bigger the scandal, the more you have to fight to keep it contained if you love the organization the scandal will damage.

    There's probably also a sense of "I'm dirty already, I have a stake in this now." To bring up a far overblown example, I've seen it suggested that when Hitler's "final solution" was proposed, everyone in the room already knew they'd done terrible things, and no one person was brave enough to be the one to say "are you (expletives) nuts?" (Worse part is, one person says that, that person gets murdered; you need several people to say it. One 'good' person can be a traitor; it takes several good people to be seen as actually "good".)

    So: people try to protect the organization, and themselves. And they don't think, they don't empathize, not enough to realize what they're protecting.

    For a perfect example, look at the GOP. Most of them knew Iraq was a cluster, uh, "fouling", as the polite dictionary claims, and that torture was a horrible, hideous idea, but… that's all far away, and we shouldn't tank the whole GOP over one stupid set of missteps. And now they have Trump, and they still can't back off, because they're in that much more deeply, just as the fifth, or tenth, allegation meant that the people who knew about the four to nine allegations against Nassar were in that deeply.

    It's not a happy explanation, as I said, but it fits what I've seen about human behavior. We need stories about "organization jumps on the first allegation, gathers the evidence, and hands it over to the police," where the story line is "they didn't blink, or deny; they did the right thing."

  11. I was a top performer who was eliminated from a corporate business by a rival who successfully painted me as a whistleblower.  Other strategies he’d tried failed, but that one worked because it got the full attention of the powers that be.  I was not his only victim, and that rival was abusive to his underlings.


    Why would management favor one serial abuser over many profitable workers?


    I set out to learn the real rules of human power games.  I believe they apply as much to the gymnastics world as they do to today’s $pecial interest dominated DC.


    When it’s very good to be a player-elite in an org which enriches, all player elites tend to want to work together to not rock that boat.  They may compete with each other, but are very careful about doing so within the unwritten power rules of their particular org.  They moved into power positions because they learned those rules and left the more obvious civilized rules of morality and decency to the losers in those games.  Such environments become quite sociopathic.  And since people of integrity have fewer weapons than those players, they will usually lose.


    The solution may involve victims knowing that they are not unique, they are not alone.  A player-elite who appears to be very comfortable and skilled at abuse will in all likelihood have been abusive to many others.  Also, it’s in all likelihood that the “morality and decency” of that particular system has been compromised and unwritten player-elite rules now apply.  So people of integrity must be very careful since those powers that be will first and foremost, want to retain their status.  They’ll have the power to silence most anybody who are still bound to their system.  And the ability to play dirty gives them more weapons than those bound to morality and decency, should a fight erupt.


    I think victims have no choice but to find and ally with other victims.  And they’ll have to think strategically. The other option involves ‘wisening-up’ the common culture, but I haven’t had much luck doing that.  People don’t want to know how powerless they really are or how corrupt their institution really is.

    • Bill — Don’t also forget we’re talking mostly about adolescent girls who were emotionally manipulated by an adult authority figure, and it’s probably asking too much to expect them to save themselves. Some of the first girls who did talk to their parents or other authorities were not believed. Note that accusations against him go back to 1994. IMO the one lesson that might do some good is if every official who allowed this to fester lost their jobs, and if the entire USA Gymnastics organization is be dismantled.

  12. <blockquote> Star, product, same thing. Either one, the athletes are the commodity that is the entire reason for being for the organization. </blockquote>

    Ah, but you might not realize, there  are plenty of might-be elite gymnasts. No one or two or three likely-elites are worth much, at least not until they're a hot commodity. A shoo-in for the Olympics is even in a mixed situation – such a person is important and valuable, but they only got there because they *wanted* the Olympics. Will they give that up, just to kick up a fuss that likely won't do anything (as previous experience sadly proves it likely won't)?

    It's like the music, or movie, industry. Someone is going to produce a lot of hits; someone is going to act in a blockbuster movie. No one is irreplaceable. And, just as in the music and movie industry, the power and profit is intended to accrue to the producer. Sure, some stars get rich; but the people who bring in the big bucks are always the producers.

    Of course, it is a bit easier to explain why Weinstein was able to get away with it for longer – there's a lot more big, direct, money in movies (or music). I'm not sure how much gymnastics brings in. But since there will always be another gymnast, and, another employee who is willing to overlook the problem, it's easy to deal with an accuser or a squawker: make the accusation/squawking "the problem" rather than the behavior that caused the accusation.


    On the plus side, Weinstein proves that it time might be running out on predators. I sure hope so; we've had so many losses over the past few years!

    • “Ah, but you might not realize, there are plenty of might-be elite gymnasts.” Plenty of might-bes, yes, but the real deals are extraordinarily rare, and they were the real drawing card. Some of these girls were being molested while they were competing in the Olympics and winning gold medals. And I don’t see Nassar as being anywhere close to being in the same position as Weinstein. Weinstein was the head of his own companies; Nassar was an employee. Your analogy isn’t working for me.

  13. What the girls had in common with my situation was they were lower status people competing against each other, with higher status authority figures doing the judging and ‘helping’. But one group of athletes was calling Nassar "the Crotch Doc". I may be weird, but if I hear repeated rumors about a single person, I assume that A: somebody is under some kind of rumor attack -or- B: there's a truth there. I automatically put on my skeptic hat.  But for some reason, many parents did not.

    It looks like heads will roll.  I wouldn’t ever forgive a single ‘authority’ until they’ve significantly added to the sum of knowledge of “How and why does this happen”?

    • “What the girls had in common with my situation was they were lower status.” Yes, obviously. But the next question becomes “why would that be true?” and I don’t think the answer is exactly the same in both situations.

      If I were a reputable thoroughbred horse breeder and I had a stable of expensive horses that included some Kentucky Derby contenders, and I found out that any employee were doing anything to those horses other than provide the best care and training, what would I do? I don’t think “coverup” would even cross my mind, even if he were a long-term employee. Of course, horses with less exalted prospects get mistreated all the time.

      Employees get mistreated and even fired all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with them or their performance; that’s happened to me, too. In my experience, until you get into upper-upper management you have no real protection or expectation of justice, no matter how good you are at your job. But it’s also the case that most of us are replaceable, whether we want to admit it or not.

      The athletes we’re talking about are not replaceable. An athlete like Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas or Simone Biles is an invaluable asset to a training organization, even after their competition days are over. Those gold medals and the prestige that goes with them were worth a ton of money to USA Gymnastics. It’s where you wanted to train if you had any hope at all of being a contender. Those elite athletes and their titles and gold medals were what made the organization. Even after they retired, the athletes could have badmouthed the organization and ruined its reputation (which is kind of what’s happening). So why *didn’t* they have higher status? That makes absolutely no sense. These girls were not employees; they were to USA Gymnastics what Secretariat was to Claiborne Farm.

  14. The horse metaphor doesn't work for me because firing an abusive horse trainer has little chance of long range ripple effects from the horses family taking down the institution. An infectious agent, a fatal virus is a more apt comparison for me. I'm actually very curious about a predator like Nassar. How did he charm his employers, parents, colleagues? How did he disguise his pathology and fool his host into accepting his presence in the institutional body like an AIDS virus? One of the glues that hold institutions/society together is the concept of trust, fair play, giving benefit of doubt, etc. A talented con artist or psychopath knows how to use these positive human traits to corrupt otherwise decent people the same way an infection turns the body on itself. Every society is susceptible. I don't know the answer to finding the vaccine, but studying people like Nassar would be a start. He wasn't a trench coat wearing subway perv. People must have liked, loved the guy. He had friends. Many of whom were decent people. Decent people can take part in horrible actions or in many cases inactions. We'd all like to think we're immune from that kind of corruption. We aren't. Understanding that might be a positive step toward recognizing the symptoms early whatever organization you're a part of.

    • “The horse metaphor doesn’t work for me because firing an abusive horse trainer has little chance of long range ripple effects from the horses family taking down the institution.” Your argument doesn’t work for me, because firing Nassar years ago, when the first complaints surfaced, would have caused a temporary blip that would have blown over by replacing him with a new hotshot physician. Nassar was replaceable. NOT firing Nassar is bringing universal wrath upon and destroying the whole program, and it arguably hurt the self-confidence of young women who need self-confidence to do what they do.

      How did he charm his employers, parents, colleagues? How did he disguise his pathology and fool his host into accepting his presence in the institutional body like an AIDS virus?

      That’s common with sexual predators. They are charming and manipulative. How did Jerry Sandusky keep his job after he was caught raping a boy in a shower? That way. There’s a kind of amnesia that sets in when it comes to sex crimes. People deny even to themselves they saw what they saw and know what they know. This is a dynamic that doesn’t exist in other situations, at least to that degree. It’s not comparable to anything else.

  15. Thanks for taking my comment into consideration. The amnesia or fog you describe, is much like the townspeople of Stephen Kings fictional Derry in the book It. Willfully oblivious to an evil clown demon devouring their children for centuries. The responsibility of dealing with this emotional block, powering through it when confronted is as much personal as it is public. I can think of other non-sex based mass atrocities, tolerated by otherwise decent people, due to misguided loyalty or nationalism. Our country is careening in that direction right now. People we love and respect(ed) support a racist monster of a president. Would you agree that to some degree, we're all susceptible to such corruption? I personally want to be ready if or when I'm confronted with similar circumstances. I'm pretty confident in my moral compass, but am also haunted by the fact that smarter, better, maybe even more moral people than I have failed that test time and time again over the centuries.

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