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The fallout of events in 'Athlete A' continues to impact MSU

July 28, 2020
<p>Prayer flags hang during the Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak Exhibition Opening Ceremony at the MSU Museum on April 16, 2019.</p>

Prayer flags hang during the Finding Our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak Exhibition Opening Ceremony at the MSU Museum on April 16, 2019.

Photo by Annie Barker | The State News

Content warning: This article deals with sensitive subjects surrounding sexual assault

Michigan State University’s four presidents in the span of two years, three criminal trials and two convictions in a stonewalled state investigation and a record $4.5 million fine from the U.S  Department of Education were all catalyzed by the subject of a recently-released Netflix documentary. 

"Athlete A" tells the story of the investigative reporters from The Indianapolis Star, the prosecutors, law enforcement officials and gymnasts who came forward to reveal former Olympic doctor, Michigan State physician and now-convicted sexual predator Larry Nassar’s decades of sexual abuse.

Just this summer, Ex-President Lou Anna K. Simon had criminal charges dismissed and then appealed July 20, which center around her alleged knowledge about the substance and the nature of Nassar’s abuse spanning decades. 

Also this summer, Paulette Granberry Russell left her post as a senior diversity advisor after 25 years at MSU, only to rescind her offer of employment at California Polytechnic because thousands signed a petition criticizing her role as MSU Title IX coordinator. 

In press notes received from P.J. Dantonello at Netflix, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk said they were privileged to be entrusted with this opportunity.

"Fact-finding is difficult, painstaking work," Cohen and Shenk said in the notes. "Speaking out against your abuser is frightening and painful. 'Athlete A' is a marriage of these two worlds. ... In their sport, gymnasts show us what is possible by defying the laws of gravity. In their commitment and performances, our American Olympians serve as inspiring reminders of the incredible potential of human beings. But, along the path to winning medals, wooing sponsors and making money, something went awry in the Olympic movement."

The film focuses on Maggie Nichols, a gymnast on the road to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but was stopped dead in her tracks as punishment for being the first athlete to blow the whistle on Nassar.

It also focuses on Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans from The Indianapolis Star, who had reported on predatory gymnastics coaches being moved around gyms but never being charged with crime and revealed how USAG was breaking the law by covering for their staff and failing to report any allegations to authorities.

They opened the door for many others to come forward, such as former competitive gymnast Rachael Denhollander, national rhythmic gymnastics champion Jessica Howard and Olympian Jamie Dantzcher.

Soon, three turned into more than 500 survivors, including nine Olympians. However, the passage of time hasn't done much to soothe their pain. 

MSU's involvement in the Nassar case

Absent from the film is the fallout of these revelations in East Lansing. 

Three MSU officials faced criminal charges directly related to the fallout of Nassar's sentencing.

Simon resigned shortly after the events shown in the film after a buildup of community pressure. She was later originally charged with two counts of lying to a peace officer in a violent crime investigation and two counts of lying to a peace officer in a four-year or more crime investigation.

Simon officially resigned from her position as university president on Jan. 24, 2018, following Nassar's sentencing and was officially charged in November 2018. After her preliminary hearing, Judge Julie Reincke ordered Simon's case to trial in October 2019.

Simon’s communication with Russell and Kristine Moore, the only two Title IX administrators in 2014, undergird the evidence state prosecutors are using to prove Simon’s guilt.

An Eaton County judge dismissed Simon's case May 13, 2020 because of insufficient evidence Simon knew Nassar’s name in 2014 in addition to the “substance and nature” of the allegations against him. 

Ex-MSU Dean William Strampel was found guilty of misconduct in office and two counts of willful neglect in his role of Nassar's boss June 12, 2019. He was sentenced to one year in Ingham County Jail in August 2019, but was released on good behavior March 19, 2020.

He was found not guilty of second-degree criminal sexual conduct.

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The federal report in September 2019, which levied a $4.5 million fine against MSU found then-provost June Youatt at fault for dismissing complaints against Strampel, which led her to resign in the same month.

MSU has since hired a new provost, Teresa Woodruff after conducting a search and hosting interviews with three finalists. 

On Feb. 14, 2020, former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was found guilty of lying to the police. She was originally charged with two counts of lying to a peace officer, one of which is a felony and one a high court misdemeanor.

Klages failed to report Nassar's sexual assault after Larissa Boyce reported it to her in 1997, when Boyce was involved in the Spartan Youth Gymnastics program. 

Klages was scheduled to be sentenced on July 15, but it was delayed due to a water main break on the day of the sentencing and has yet to be rescheduled.

Implications at the national level

Nearly five years later, survivors still fight for justice at the national level. According to an article by The Orange County Register, they have called upon the Attorney General William Barr in a letter, demanding the documents involving Inspector General Michael Horowitz's investigation into the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) handling of the Nassar case be released.

“(We are) investigating the allegations concerning the FBI’s handling of the Nassar investigation, and the victims and the public should (be) rest assured our findings will be made public at the end of our investigation,” Stephanie Logan, spokesperson for the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General, said in a comment.

Over the year it took to make this film, Serin Marshall, another one of the producers, said their crew had interviewed prosecutor Angela Povilaitis and Detective Lt. Andrea Munford.

"In the case of Nassar, hundreds of women were abused over multiple decades — it was one of the worst sexual assault cases in sports history — and yet it still took so many brave people, over so many years, plus a fair amount of luck and timing for them to actually be believed," Marshall said. "It became painfully clear the challenges survivors can face when they come forward — especially if they are the only one speaking out and the story involves a powerful individual in the community."

The #MeToo movement, as well as allegations on higher powers like Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh and former film producer Harvey Weinstein support that the climate is truly hostile.

"One thing (Cohen) and I were always talking about was that it takes a fricking miracle to bring one bad dude down," Shenk said. "It really should just take one crime for someone to go to jail. These guys get away with hundreds. What interested us about this was what does it take, how many people have to work full-time for how many years, to uncover this thing?"

Shenk said sports are at the beginning of what needs to be a dramatic, systematic change. Thirty years ago, sexual assault wasn't widely talked about because prosecution was almost impossible. Now, whether in the world of Hollywood, politics or sports, there's a new expectation: You can get in trouble for this kind of behavior.

"In general, the pendulum is swinging in the right direction," Shenk said. "But, of course, there's a lot of corruption out there ... a lot of systemic momentum in the direction of corruption. It takes years and years to unwind that."

Gymnast reacts to "Athlete A"

Nursing junior Grace Ryan is a former gymnast from Chicago. 

As someone who has at least 16 years of first-hand experience going through the cultural wringer of USAG, the Karolyi Ranch and competitive gymnastics, Ryan said that "Athlete A" was hard to watch, but she's glad that the story has finally been exposed because the suffering of these athletes needs to end. 

Ryan also said she didn't know much about the scandal involving MSU until around the time of Nassar's court appearances, when it began to become public, and she is not a victim of Nassar's abuse specifically. 

However, she does have memories of a fair amount of girls from her home gym, some friends and some not, driving up to see Nassar for treatment on weekends. 

"One thing we’re kind of taught in the gymnastics world is to train to be the best," she said. "If Nassar is the (best doctor) and you’ve just suffered a career-threatening injury (while training) to be the best, you’re going to go see (him)." 

No one ever spoke on it, which is another issue Ryan mentioned — every day of their training is kept apart from their parents. 

"You were told to keep what’s in the gym, in the gym, no matter what happens," Ryan said. "If they did speak out, they weren't listened to."

According to the Army of Survivors — a national organization created by survivors, for survivors — website, 7% of student athletes are victims of sexual assault, while elite athletes face higher rates. There are at least 3.75 million survivors in the country alone.

"What (we) have been trying to do is really keep the conversation going about what has happened," Danielle Moore, mental health advisor and board member for the organization, said. "If you're talking about it, then you're aware of it." 

Ryan said that because gymnastics is such a lucrative sport, people saw it on the outside and didn't understand what went through a gymnast's day-to-day routine, which fostered a culture of abuse. 

"(Probably) every girl who’s ever been a gymnast can say they’ve met at least one coach, or one person, someone in their lifetime, who has touched them where they shouldn’t have or spotted them a little too aggressively, and I think that that is something we need to start changing," she said. "We can't keep teaching our little girls that they have to watch out, to be careful. We need to start teaching the men, the boys, that you can’t look at a girl and sexualize her because she’s wearing a leotard." 


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