Jock Talk: Make it stop

  • by Roger Brigham
  • Wednesday January 24, 2018
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While an endless parade of women who were sexually abused and assaulted for years and years by Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University physician, testified in court during the past week about Nassar's grotesque actions and the institutional practices that constantly shielded him rather than protecting the athletes under his care, several gymnastic federation leaders (Chairman Paul Parilla, Vice Chairman Jay Binder and Treasurer Bitsy Kelley) resigned and calls sprang up for an administrative shakeup at MSU.

The federation also suspended 2012 Olympics coach John Geddert, who was closely associated with Nassar for a quarter of a century, while it investigated the dynamics of their association; and law enforcement officials in Texas said they were investigating Karolyi Ranch, an Olympic training facility previously used by the national team and the place where many of the female victims say assaults by Nassar occurred. The gymnastic federation said it would stop using the facility and previously backed out of talks to purchase it.

Nice first steps, but then again: just first steps. Ridding the sports world of abuse (sexual or otherwise) is going to take years of deliberate cultural change and unstopping vigilance. To ensure the safety and well-being of its young athletes, the nation cannot afford to drop this cause once the headlines dissipate.

"Within the Olympic world, sexual abuse has been a decades-long slow burning fuse," athlete advocate and activist Nancy Hogshead-Makar wrote in Athletic Business. "Sexual abuse of athletes, unfortunately, is neither new nor surprising for those of us who have seen and experienced it firsthand during our athletic and professional careers. It's an issue that has only been exacerbated by U.S. Olympic Committee and National Sports Governing Bodies policies that are designed to deflect from civil liability."

Now, maybe you weren't aware of the court case. Maybe you weren't even aware of the general issue (i.e., adult trainers, physicians, doctors, and administrators abusing vulnerable athletes in their charge) and therefore don't think it is all that big a deal. After all, it can be difficult to pay attention to gut-wrenching issues like this when you are caught up in reports on the status of Tom Brady's pinkies or panic attacks in the Cleveland Cavaliers organization.

But this is important stuff, the kind of stuff that destroys lives, careers, and dreams. And it's about time people started paying attention and demanding changes. Not just from MSU and from the gymnastics federation, but from every youth program, every college program, every Olympic sport - hell, from every sports program that exists. Period.

Many have noted how gender dynamics and homophobia have influenced media coverage of the women's gymnastics story compared with the Jerry Sandusky rape and sexual assault case at Penn State a few years back. The Penn State case, which involved male victims who numbered in, at most, the dozens, drew swift and harsh action by the NCAA and the legal system and outraged media coverage. The coverage of the MSU/USA Gymnastics cases, which involves scores of girls, has been given muted coverage in news and sports media.

This double standard reflects a sports culture that has long adopted a wink-and-nod attitude toward sexual involvement of its male adults with young girls, such as coaches dating cheerleaders, but gone ballistic at any hint of male-on-male predation.

What next steps should be taken?

Well, not what the current secretary of education has been doing in her directives to roll back Title IX protections for victims of sexual assault on campus.

Instead, pro-active steps should be taken at every level from individual to institutional.

Coaches should avoid situations in which they are isolated one-on-one with athletes. And they should never become intimately involved with their athletes - even when such involvement does not result in statutory rape. You're at different points in the timelines of your lives: the power differential in the relationships is harmful and stunting.

The Senate passed a bill that will give the U.S. Center for SafeSport the power to adjudicate independent from the USOC and national governing bodies of sexual abuses in sports - and give it the funds to do so. The House of Representatives should follow suit as soon as possible.

I'd say the NCAA should tackle the issue, impose required policies of its member institutions, such as coaches not dating students, and harshly punish schools that show a pattern of enabling abuses - but who has faith in the NCAA to act decisively in such matters? In any event, the schools themselves need to address their policies and practices and not wait to be told to do the right thing.

Governing bodies in sports such as gymnastics and swimming have told courts that they are not responsible for the individual actions of a few bad eggs. Bullshit: the governing bodies make their money off those athletes and must be required to provide safe environments in their programs. They should require anyone aware of abuses to report their observations to legal authorities immediately, and they should establish readily available databases of known abusers.

Parents should begin dialogues with their offspring, telling them they have their backs and encouraging them to tell them about interactions with sports staffers - and do it before anything happens, not after.

This predatory culture has persisted for ages because of individual and institutional enablers. Hard to make an abuser a non-abuser. It's hard, but not impossible, to detect, prevent, and stop abuse. It requires concern, commitment and vigilance.

Then again, so does anything else of value in this world. No excuses.

Memorial Run update

Final details for the Memorial Run to End AIDS, which is run in former Gay Games host cities around the world every four years, are being finalized by race organizers.

This year's run will start at 9 a.m. Saturday, February 3, at the Stow Lake Boat House in Golden Gate Park. Among the groups that are participating that will be introduced at the start of the run are San Francisco FrontRunners, East Bay FrontRunners and Walkers, San Francisco Track and Field, Tsunami Aquatics, Cheer SF, San Francisco Spikes, Gay and Lesbian Tennis Federation, San Francisco Gay Basketball Association, and Golden Gate Wrestling. Federation of Gay Games marketing officer Doug Litwin will represent the bowling community and cyclists from the AIDS/LifeCycle will escort the runners. Wrestler Gene Dermody and track and field athlete Rick Thoman, both of who have competed in every Gay Games, are also expected to attend. Photography will be provided by Topher Olson.

Any other local organizations that wish to be included can contact organizer Reggie Snowden at

From the boathouse, the runners will go to the National AIDS Memorial Grove to hear a couple of speakers. From there they will run to Kezar Stadium for more speakers, highlighted by gay former San Francisco supervisor Bevan Dufty. The run will then conclude on the steps of City Hall on the Polk Street side, with a short ceremony and addresses by Sara Waddell Lowenstein, gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), gay District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, and Brent Nicholson Earle.

After the run, the participants will retire across the street to U.N. Plaza for ravioli (supplied by Original Joe's) and beverages, supplied by SF FrontRunners.