In 2016, the gymnastics world was rocked by the reports of sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics and University of Michigan doctor Larry Nassar. In total, over 500 women and girls have accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them during what were supposed to be routine treatments for injuries sustained during the sport. Athlete A, Netflix’s new documentary, explores the case through the lens of the IndyStar journalists who reported it, and attempts to answer the questions of how this could have happened — and how it could have gone on for so long.
“Athlete A” was gymnast Maggie Nichols, whose identity was revealed right before testimony at Nassar’s sentencing. Nichols was the first athlete to formally file a complaint against Nassar with USAG, in June of 2015. But, as the IndyStar investigation revealed, there were many, many other girls before Nichols.
Perhaps even more damning, USAG lied to Nichols’ parents about the way the incident was being investigated. For months after being made aware of Nassar’s abuse, USAG allowed him to remain in his position — during which time at least 40 more girls were abused — and the organisation attempted to cover up the accusations. The film also insinuates that Nichols, who had been considered a shoe-in for the 2016 Olympic team but ultimately didn't make it, faced retaliation for reporting Nassar. She has since left the USAG system to compete for University of Oklahoma at the NCAA level.
Now, the Nassar case is all but settled legally. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, though the healing for survivors of his abuse will likely be an ongoing process. But the reckoning for USAG is far from over. In 2019, a Senate panel determined that a pattern of negligent behaviour on the part of USAG and the U.S. Olympic Committee allowed Nassar’s abuse to continue.
The organisation filed for bankruptcy in December 2018, following the fallout of the Nassar lawsuits. This spring, survivors overwhelmingly rejected USAG’s settlement offer, which would have paid victims between $82,500 and $1.25 million, and would have released former USAG CEO Steve Penny, USAG and USOPC coaches including Bella and Marta Karolyi, and former Olympic coach Don Peters, who was found to have coerced underage gymnasts into having sex, from any legal claims.
Then, in April, coach Maggie Haney received an eight year suspension from the sport for subjecting her athletes to physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez was one of at least a dozen athletes who reported being abused by Haney. The allegations included reports that Haney would pull athletes by their hair, ridicule them and call them names, including an ableist slur, if they were unable to perform or afraid to try a trick, body shame them, and pressure them to train or compete while injured, including coercing them to remove boot casts or other medical devices before they were healed.
According to Hernandez, she and her parents first reported Haney to USAG back in 2016, but a case into the allegations wasn’t opened until 2019, when the parents of world champion gymnast Riley McCusker began raising the issue with USAG officials. If an investigation had been opened sooner, “it could have prevented a lot of athletes from having to go through the same thing that I went through,” Hernandez said on the TODAY Show last month.
The lag in time between the report of abuse by Haney and the opening of an investigation is not dissimilar from how the Nassar case was handled, which is all the more shocking considering the public fallout from Nassar’s actions and USAG’s failure to prevent or stop them.
According to reporting by the Orange County Register, Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics until March 2017, was informed of Hernandez’s complaints twice. But Wanda Hernandez, Laurie’s mother, said she was never contacted by Penny about Haney. Meanwhile, Nichols’ parents were being told by Penny that the FBI was investigating their daughter's complaint about Nassar and that if they spoke publicly about it, they would compromise the investigation. They would come to find out that Penny was lying to them.
In October 2018, Penny was charged with tampering with evidence related to the Nassar case. He pled not guilty. He is currently awaiting trial.
What’s left is countless women and girls left continuing to try to pick up the pieces after an organisation that was supposed to protect them failed to do so. Athlete A is a damning investigation into what it looks like when a culture is “willing to sacrifice its young” to win at all costs, as Jennifer Sey, author of Chalked Up: My Life in Gymnastics, says in the film.