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We Can Applaud Gymnasts’ Courage, But Until We Right The World, Our Plaudits Are Meaningless

Heidi Stevens Tribune News Service

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Columnist Heidi Stevens shares her thoughts on the courageous USA Gymnasts who gave Senate testimony regarding the abuse they suffered at the hands of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.

Tribune

The day before gymnasts Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney and Maggie Nichols testified before the U.S. Senate about the abuse they endured at the hands of convicted sex offender Lawrence G. Nassar, I sat in a ballroom listening to Stacey Abrams call upon us to rise up and right the world.

"Until we make it right for everyone,” Abrams said, “it will not be right for anyone."

Abrams was the keynote speaker at the Chicago Foundation for Women’s 36th annual luncheon, and she knocked it out of the park. She offered a testimonial to our connectedness, a vow to let that connectedness set her moral compass — and a powerful nudge for the rest of us to do the same.

Exactly three years before Abrams’ powerful call, I was sitting in the same building. The occasion was also the Chicago Foundation for Women’s annual luncheon, only that time I was onstage interviewing Raisman. Raisman had begun to speak publicly about former USA Gymnastics team doctor Nassar’s abuse a year earlier, in 2017. In January 2018, Raisman read a victim impact statement at Nassar’s sentencing hearing that shook the gymnastics world.

“Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice,” Raisman said in court that day. “Well, you know what, Larry, I have both power and voice, and I am only beginning to just use them.”

On a Chicago stage eight months later, she kept her promise.

“When someone comes forward, don’t assume that they are making it up,” she told the crowd that day. “Actually listen to them, hear their story and understand how common abuse is and be empathetic to what they’ve been through.”

Three years passed between Raisman’s keynote and the one Abrams delivered at the very same luncheon. But more than a venue connected them. A plea for action and a sense of urgency connected them. A call for all of us to listen, to hear, to disrupt a system that throws girls and women to the wolves and then looks away when they reveal their wounds — that’s what connected them.

We know from Raisman’s and her peers’ courageous Senate testimony that their stories, for far too long and in far too many places, were not heard or heeded. The FBI started investigating allegations against Nassar years prior and did nothing to stop him.

Maroney told the Senate that she described what Nassar did to her in painful detail during a three-hour phone call in 2015. She said when she was finished, the agent asked her, “Is that all?”

“Not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented my report 17 months later, they made entirely false claims about what I said,” Maroney testified. “They chose to lie about what I said and protect a serial child molester rather than protect not only me, but countless others.”Raisman told the Senate Judiciary Committee the FBI "made me feel my abuse didn't count."

Nassar was finally arrested, prosecuted and sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in 2018. More than 150 women and girls, as young as 8 years old, testified that he abused them while they were supposed to be under his medical care.

How many could have been spared, had the FBI done its job?

"All we needed was for one adult to do the right thing," Raisman told the Senate Judiciary Committee. Two months ago, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a report sharply criticizing the bureau’s handling of the Nassar case. The report said senior FBI officials in the Indianapolis office made “numerous and fundamental errors” and failed to notify state or local authorities of the allegations against Nassar, who continued to be granted access to athletes’ bodies behind closed doors. The report also said W. Jay Abbott, the special agent in charge of the Indianapolis field office, repeatedly lied to the inspector general’s office.

Raisman has repeatedly called for an independent investigation of how Nassar’s case was handled, and she reiterated her request during her Senate testimony. Several senators called for FBI agents who mishandled the case to be prosecuted.

“A whole lot of people should be in prison,” said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.

Of course they should. And I hope the committee does more than just talk tough in front of the cameras. These women have told their stories enough times, to enough people, in enough offices. Enough. “I ask you,” Biles implored, “How much is a little girl worth?”

It’s a question this country, this world, gets ample opportunity to answer. And all too often the answer is, “Not much.”

That needs to change. It needs to change now, and it needs to change on a systemic level. We can applaud these athletes for their courage. We can sit in quiet awe of their resilience. We can hail them as heroes. But until we rise up and right the world, our plaudits are meaningless.

“Know that rising up is uncomfortable,” Abrams told us. "That it is awkward. That it is off-putting. That it makes some people mad and it makes other people joyous. Because when you see someone who looks like you rise up, when you hear your story told by someone you didn’t think could see you, when you hear the disruption of a system that says you’re not enough, then you start to believe in this tiny corner of your heart that you are worthy of action. That you are worthy of attention. And that you too are capable of rising up and righting the world."

To do anything less is unthinkable. ____ Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at [email protected], find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens' Balancing Act Facebook group. ____ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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