Victim after victim — more than 150 in all — bravely faced Larry Nassar, their abuser, with shattering impact statements during the former USA Gymnastics physician’s sentencing hearing over the past week.
For more than two decades, Nassar, who also ran a gymnastics clinic at Michigan State University, used his position of power and trust to prey on vulnerable children. Each account of sexual abuse further exposed a culture of ignorance and victim blaming within competitive sport.
The enormity of Nassar crimes seems unfathomable. That he wasn’t stopped sooner is unconscionable. There weren’t just red flags. There were flashing lights and sirens. And they were ignored again and again.
And as those wrenching accounts of sexual abuse were shared at Nassar’s sentencing, Sheldon Kennedy saw history repeating.
Kennedy, who endured years of sexual abuse by hockey coach Graham James, has worked tirelessly over the past 20 years to educate organizations, coaches, parents and athletes about the dangers of abuse in sport.
Today, Kennedy’s organization, Respect in Sport, has trained more than one million coaches, parents and athletes about how to identify and prevent sexual abuse. And while he’s seen a massive change in the level of awareness about the issue, Kennedy knows there’s still a long way to go.
The damning questions that emerge from the Nassar trial are the result of a culture that refused to look within itself:
How could Nassar — carrying the trust of young, vulnerable athletes — be given the power and position to harm so many, for so long?
How could the many reports of sexual misconduct at MSU go unaccounted for?
How could USA Gymnastics officials dismiss so many sexual-abuse allegations as hearsay?
How, when faced with the truth, could they try to silence it?
The long, hard answers to these questions will almost certainly result in institutional change, but that change will only be effective if the underlying culture of disbelief and silence changes, too.
What’s more, the same questions being asked today were once asked about Graham James surrounding his abuse of Kennedy.
In that case, Swift Current, a town of about 16,000 in Saskatchewan, was unable to — or refused to — fully see the evidence that something terrible was happening.
“Look at Graham James: ‘[He was] hockey man of the year,’” Kennedy says, intoning the sentiment that surrounded rumours of the coach’s predatory behaviour. “‘Are you kidding? This guy’s never going to do that!’”
Some simply don’t want to believe that a person in a respected position could be capable of something so monstrous, Kennedy says. And because of that they don’t ask the questions that need to be asked.
It’s a matter of education, Kennedy adds.
“In Swift Current, there are some really good people, and a lot of people had a feeling in their gut that something wasn’t right. And they didn’t know what to do. It wasn’t [an educational] priority,” Kennedy says. “We have to get to a place where our No. 1 priority is child protection, child safety, and youth wellness.”
When he was being abused as a teenager, Kennedy says people noticed his substance abuse, his absence from school, his trouble with the law, the self-inflicted cuts on his arms. They knew something was wrong, he says.
“But those questions were never asked.”
For years, Kennedy says, those who saw the signs but didn’t do anything about them carried a sense of shame and guilt. And when he returned to Swift Current two years ago to screen a documentary about the abuse he suffered, he knew it was going to be an emotional event. Nearly 700 people filled the local theatre.
“When we talked about it, it gave people permission to forgive themselves — but not forget,” Kennedy says. “This happened here and it left a dark cloud over your town. Now you can either keep your head buried in the sand, or you can say ‘This is what we need to do’ and you can be the champions — be the town that makes sure this doesn’t ever happen again.”
Kennedy shared a similar message when he testified before the U.S. Senate at a congressional hearing into sexual abuse in 2011 after Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of young boys. Kennedy urged the American law makers to better enable bystanders to blow the whistle on instances of suspected abuse. For too long, Kennedy says, abusers in positions of power have been granted the benefit of the doubt when facing accusations of assault — while their powerless accusers face shame, scorn and potential ruin in the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to.
“There’s naiveté and there’s cover-up,” Kennedy says of the Penn State scandal. “There were rumblings for years.”
And, tragically, there will almost certainly be rumblings again. People in positions of influence will take advantage of power dynamics in relations with others. As the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent #MeToo movement has shown, this is not just true of predators luring children — but of adults at risk of abuse, too.
Kennedy believes steps are being taken to address this in the Canadian sports landscape. Across the country, he says, organizations have made education and awareness around the seriousness of these issues a priority.
He points to the recent news surrounding Michael Crowe, the head coach of Speed Skating Canada, who has been accused of having sexual relationships with some of the skaters he trained during his time with the U.S. team.
Right now, as an internal investigation unfolds, we can’t be certain about what occurred and shouldn’t speculate. The claims have not been verified and there have been no charges laid against Crowe.
But the coach has been placed on leave just weeks before the Olympics so an internal investigation can take place. That’s a positive sign that allegations are being heard and taken seriously, Kennedy says.
“What we’re seeing is people being more confident to come forward and address these issues,” Kennedy says. “Some organizations are doing everything they can to educate and to protect within their power.”
But organizations can only do so much, he says. Preventing the kind of abuse he suffered from happening again requires everyone in sport to take the initiative to learn the realities of sexual abuse. It takes people willing to fight against the fear that predators exploit, and to call out suspicious behaviour when they see it.
“At the end of the day,” Kennedy says. “We all have to pay attention.”