Institutional Culture Reliably Protects Abusers, Not The Abused
Aly Raisman’s outrage is justified and real. She had been abused by Larry Nassar, one of the US Gymnastics Team’s doctors, and like more than a hundred other women -- more than one hundred other women -- she wanted to see Nassar held responsible for his crimes. So she asked Nassar’s prosecutors if she could testify at his trial during its sentencing portion. They agreed.
Raisman’s testimony is being rightly hailed for its frankness. It is rare that the abused are able, and willing, to speak so honestly on such a massive platform, and yet here is Raisman, a gymnast with three golds and three silvers and a bronze, taking a flamethrower to Nassar. The biggest takeaway from her testimony has been its summation of Nassar’s victims and of the doctor himself:
“You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”
Raisman is right of course. Nassar is beneath contempt, more monster than human being, but the kind who operated at least in part because of the sanction he enjoyed from people tasked with knowing, and doing, better.
Raisman’s righteous anger extends to those who enabled Nassar. Raisman repeatedly took aim at the institutions that employed Nassar, the same institutions that chose to repeatedly cover for him instead of taking seriously his victims who slowly came forward, one by one, in a steady trickle over unfathomable two-plus decades of reports. Those institutions include USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic Committee, both of which concerned themselves more with aggregate medal counts than they did with the safety of their athletes.
“I have represented the USA in two Olympics and have done so successfully…And both USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee have been very quick to capitalize and celebrate my success, but did they reach out when I came forward? No.“
There is a third institution has similarly not only ignored its own responsibility to its athletes but to all measures of human decency: Michigan State University. And unlike the USAG and USOC, who have at least made some half-hearted attempts at damage control, MSU has doubled and tripled and quadrupled down on its own institutional innocence, repeatedly refusing to acknowledge what is plain to see: that its own failures frankly encouraged sexual abuse of dozens of athletes over, again, the course of decades.
Thus far, MSU’s spectacular parade of ongoing failure has included all of the following:
- Employing at least fourteen (14!) individuals who received credible reports of Nassar’s sexual predation, and who then -- rather than reporting the abuse to local authorities, seeking justice for abused athletes, or protecting future athletes -- chose to do absolutely nothing instead. Well, maybe that’s not fair. At least one of the coaches also condescended to a reporting student-athlete, telling her that Nassar was an Olympic doctor, and to simply trust him to know what he was doing. What he was doing has since been understood to have been abuse.
- Later, MSU would finally deign to investigate claims being made against Nassar. The institution loosed its Title IX office, which, after an allegedly exhaustive investigation, somehow concluded that everything Nassar was doing was appropriate. When the findings from this investigation were turned over to the Ingham County Prosecutors Office, it too decided that Nassar’s behavior was entirely above board. After that clearance, another 12 athletes would be abused.
- Finally, last week, MSU’s Board Of Trustees gathered and agreed -- after looking at the entirety of the evidence available about the University’s total inability to substantively deal with Nassar’s abuse -- to continue its support of Lou Anna Simon, the school’s president. Because, sure, why not. Simon, who has been in charge of MSU since 2005, and whose Title IX office managed to clear Nassar, and who herself knew about Nassar, has insisted she is not allowed to discuss the case publicly due to ongoing litigation. But she did have time to send the campus community a letter in which she absolved herself and the school of any failing at all.*
- Oh, and the response was handled so tactlessly that former MSU athletes felt that they were the ones being blamed for Nassar’s abuse.
- Oh, and Tom Izzo, the school’s basketball coach, inexplicably decided that defending Simon from criticism was of paramount concern, saying, “But I also, I just gotta say that that is a situation that I think is being dealt with and has been dealt with. And there is no way I could waver on the support for my administration or my president, knowing the 35 years I have spent here on what she has done for this university, what she has stood for — not only athletics, that’s a small part. For women’s groups, for different groups, I think she’s been a champion. I hope and pray that the survivors get through this. But I also hope that we take a serious look at what we’re doing.” He has since, umm, “clarified” his comments.
If any of this looks familiar, it is likely because MSU’s strategy has mirrored the ones employed by other credibly accused institutions, including the Catholic Church, The Boy Scouts Of America, and Penn State University. The playbook is always the same: delays and deflections in equal measure, vacillation between insisting that victims understand that nothing untoward actually happened to promising victims that justice will be done, all coupled with outrage at the idea that the institution could have possibly failed the individual. This playbook is run all while hoping that the allegations themselves can simply be endured and outlasted and it presumes, most outrageously of all, that the institution’s continued existence should always, always, always be more important than the individual’s experience. It isn’t that what happened to Nassar’s victims is unique in other words; it’s that it is part of an ongoing institutional pattern, one in which employers offer sanctuary to abusers while simultaneously insisting that victims be left out in the cold.
But just as institutions enabled Nassar, our culture enables institutions. At least part of the problem underpinning all of this is our continued cultural belief that the abused owe the world ironclad evidence that something occurred, evidence that they almost always do not have. This demand for evidence, which is almost always structured as an X+1 formulation, in which X equals everything currently known, and the +1 represents the one more piece that we need to conclude abuse. But because that +1 is always immediately added to the X, we get stuck in a cultural feedback loop, in which no amount of information is enough. This enables abusers, who are able to operate unchecked until the point in time in which so much abuse is being claimed that it simply can no longer be ignored, denied, or explained away. The issue wasn’t that Nassar had abused Raisman but rather that Nassar had abused at least a hundred other women as well, just as the issue wasn’t that priests or scoutmasters or football coaches had abused one child, but rather, that they too had abused so many others too.
Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz tackled the issue of evidence while writing about Harvey Weinstein’s myriad abuses. She was challenging the media, one of the most obvious purveyors of the double-standard that exists for the abused and the abuser. Her essay “Against Allegedly” makes clear the problem: the only people who get the benefit of the doubt are the ones who abuse.
To hear the keepers of the craft tell it, alleged is important because it signifies that the writer doesn’t know the exact, final truth. This is often true. They’ll argue that it’s important to show that what is said in cases is an allegation or an accusation and not a fact. They’ll assert that a source could be wrong, and that this hedge may prove important when, days later, reporters have to come back with different information and explain discrepancies. This is, they’ll say, America—the land of reasonable doubt, a very good legal concept we all can agree with. Report what you know, the saying goes. How can journalists be certain of anything if they weren’t witnesses to what happened? It is a sign, they’ll say, of scrupulousness, practically a sign of journalistic virtue.
Which is a load of shit.
She goes further here:
So allegedly, alleged, allegation, and accusation are, in part, words used to signify whom reporters trust and whom they do not. But there’s another factor in the usage, one that weighs mightily on the Weinstein coverage: lawsuits and the money to pursue them. Anyone who has had a story “lawyered” knows this. It is, in some ways, the ultimate thumb on the scale of who gets treated certain ways by reporters—their financial ability to make your life hell.
That last part there -- power -- drives so much of the decisions that were made here, because the issue is not simply how reporters treat allegations, but how everybody treats allegations. Reporters treat the abused as potential liars, tagging everything they say with “allegedly” because the cost for doing otherwise is zero. The abused might object of course, but that is but a single person. Meanwhile, we expect that the accused will be given the benefit of the doubt, over and over and over, long after the benefit of the doubt makes any sort of substantive sense at all, and we do this because we believe it to be just. And the accused, by virtue of being empowered to potentially object, is treated as a truth-teller, over and over and over again. Aly Raisman’s allegations were “alleged” because she had only her own recounting of events. Nassar’s denials were not alleged, not because they were truthful, but because they were his accounting of events, and because they were backed by the institutions that backed him. An accusation against Nassar was an accusation against the USAG, the USOC, MSU, and others. The entirety of the system is tilted in this way, forcing the abused to overcome an almost impossible hurdle while first treating the accused as trustworthy victims. This is almost certainly the thing that does the most to encourage and enable abuse, and despite this, we decide that this is precisely how it should be designed.
Moskovitz’s solution, at least as far as the media goes, is an elegant one:
At this point, I wonder what is the magical number that will make the word alleged unnecessary. It’s a morbid game of addition involving people’s actual pain and suffering. At 95 women, do reporters get to slough it aside? Or will it take 99? Perhaps a nice, round 100 will finally satisfy editors across America that, perhaps, these are more than allegations—that these are women coming forward and saying they were harassed, assaulted, and raped.
There is an easy fix. You can say the women said all this. The women said Weinstein harassed them into giving him massages while he was naked. The women said Weinstein assaulted them. The women said Weinstein raped them. It is, I realize, a clunky phrase for headlines. When a story needs to lose three inches, any concerns for such sensitivities will quickly melt away. The Times is always going to be the Times and just write in its maddening yet signature Times-ese. But these women said it, with their own action, their own agency, in their own voices. Saying they did so is just fair treatment.
However, it is also worth noting that this idea -- that maybe victims should be treated with as much credibility as the men that have abused them -- will meet with fierce resistance from those who insist that the benefit of the doubt is more important than all other concerns, including stanching, however slightly, the actual occurrence of abuse. Is it worth noting that many of those who will take this position will do so, implicitly or otherwise, because they have an easier time imagining being falsely accused than they can being abused? Perhaps it is, although the fury that this will be inevitably met with will predictably redirect the conversation, just as discussions of abuse itself are always redirected: away from abusers, away from the institutions that enabled them, and toward anything -- literally anything -- else.
So it goes then that institutions will continue to create and enable Larry Nassars. Raisman’s pleas for institutional change will fall on almost certainly deaf ears, beyond the usual promises that something substantive will be done, even in the face of a scathing examination of the USAG’s practices. Yes, the names at the top might be different (owing to a rash of sudden resignations by USAG board members who have only just discovered that aiding and abetting the sexual abuse of gymnasts is a less than healthy business model) but until the understanding and punishment of abuse changes, is it even remotely realistic to expect the cultural shift necessary to encourage better handling of abuse? And speaking of names changing: it is likely that those resignations will represent the very most punishment that everybody involved with this will get. As it stands, nobody beyond Nassar has been charged for having been involved in his crimes: not the numerous executives who knew what Nassar was doing, not the numerous MSU administrators who knew what Nassar was doing, not the investigative arms of local law enforcement who knew what Nassar was doing. In fact, it seems incredibly unlikely that anybody beyond Larry Nassar himself will be punished at all, save the occasional person who will discover that now is, in fact, the perfect time to resign.
This, like so much of the rest of the scandal, is not an outlier either. It is extremely rare for anybody involved in these conspiratorial coverups to wind up getting punished. The entire Catholic infrastructure knew what abusive priests were doing, and not only were they not punished for having engaged in what amounts to a criminal conspiracy to protect those priests from consequence (nevermind in having exposed new populations to those same priests) but some of then ended up being internally promoted. The same is true of the Boy Scouts administrative arm, an organization that has continued to fight the outing of its abusive scoutmasters and its abusive infrastructure. The outlier here is Penn State. There, three administrators were lightly slapped on the wrists for having enabled Jerry Sandusky, a punishment so mild that Michigan State’s Simon must not have noticed it. Perhaps she could have been motivated to care had those administrators received decades instead of months? Perhaps not.
So all of this, ultimately, will be left at Larry Nassar’s feet. He will deservedly die in prison as the nothing that Raisman described him as. He will die a bogeyman. The institutional and cultural conditions that such monstrousness will continue, untouched and unabated, not because we do not know there is a problem, but because we are conditioned to continue believing that the same institutions that allowed the last crisis are prepared to stop the next one, even in the face of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that such a conclusion is absurdly untrue. Yes, there is outrage at what happened, but there will be more sustained outrage at any proposed fix -- and so it will be that the next monster will be exactly like the last one.
*And here we have Emma Ann Miller, a 15-year-old girl and Nassar’s last known victim, reporting that Michigan State is still billing her for her visits to Nassar, when she was abused, because, sure, if you have already quadrupled down on evil, what difference does the quintuple make? (UPDATE: MSU has graciously agreed to not bill Nassar’s victims. Now. After this was discovered. But not before. Which is worth remembering.)