Michigan State University announced it had settled with 332 sexual abuse victims of Lawrence G. Nassar, a physician who worked with the school’s gymnastics program. The settlement will pay $425 million to 332 victims, or about $1.28 million each; it will set aside an additional $75 million in a trust for any future claims of sexual abuse against Mr. Nassar.
Half a billion dollars is a landmark settlement, one that couldn’t have been achieved without the courage and vulnerability of Mr. Nassar’s hundreds of victims. And it didn’t help that the university chose a strategy of maligning the victims, accusing one of them, Rachael Denhollander, of being in it “for the money”, according to this article on NY Times.
Until recently, though, this sort of strategy often worked. The difference this time is both the sheer number of victims and the intersection of the Nasser case and the #MeToo movement. Understanding the Michigan State settlement within that context is critical, because it points to where things need to go next: The #MeToo/#TimesUp movement is not limited to getting victims much-needed compensation and ousting powerful and abusive men from their professional careers; it means changing the systems and cultures that breed sexual harassment and abuse in the first place.
However badly we think Michigan State behaved, at least the university recognized that it has a duty to protect its students from sexual abuse and violence, and it eventually acted. Structures were in place, even if it took the school too long to use them.
Not true for the United States Olympic Committee. It has known that sexual abuse is a significant risk of harm to America’s athletes, but the committee made the conscious decision to let the abuse happen without helping victims.
Instead, the committee has adopted a “not my problem” approach, declaring that it is up to the individual sports to root out abuse. By taking that strategy, the committee avoids having to educate families and athletes about the risks of sexual abuse, having to train children on how to recognize appropriate boundaries and having to train its staff on how to conduct an investigation or a hearing that the parties would consider fair.
This is beginning to change. In February, in response to powerful testimony in the Nassar case by athletes like Aly Raisman, Congress passed the SafeSport Act, which imposes an obligation on the Olympic Committee and the 47 sports it oversees to protect athletes from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It prohibits coaches and those in power over athletes from being alone together, except in an emergency.
To change this, the United States Olympic Committee has to change its approach to sports. Too often its staff usurps the prestige of the Olympic movement for itself, while treating the athletes as fungible commodities. The committee needs to invert those priorities; it must aspire to become the best-run nonprofit in America, in service to the country and our athletes.
Read more on nytimes.com