A reckoning is imminent for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics following fallout from the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of American sports.
Larry Nassar, former MSU and Olympic team doctor, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison last Wednesday on sexual assault charges after being accused of abusing over 160 young women and girls under the guise medical treatment throughout his career.
Answers will continue to be demanded from school officials and sporting institutions concerning the culture of indifference and gross negligence that resulted in the colossal failure to protect athletes from being abused.
Below is a discussion among three ministers on the healing in the midst of overwhelming tragedy, hope for abuse survivors, and God’s influence in a path forward to shield athletes from harm.
This discussion has been edited and condensed.
Denise Hammons serves on Athletes in Action’s campus executive team as director of training and development.
Holly Murray serves with Athletes in Action at the University of Wisconsin. She was a gymnast at Rutgers University.
Meg Akehi is a former Athletes in Action staff member currently pursuing a PhD in Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University.
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How have you been able to process last week’s sentencing of Larry Nassar?
Denise Hammons: It felt like a relief and the ending of season in phase one. It's a relief that a dangerous person is no longer allowed to flourish, but it feels like it's just the beginning of a phase two of the redemptive reorganization process.
Holly Murray: Same. His sentencing and the sentence that he got was the first of many dominoes to fall to change a deeper underlying problem. There were so many people that enabled this and created the environment. Whether they knew the abuse was happening or not, they created an environment for it to thrive and so there's still so much underlying frustration and anger then it even got to this point. I just ask, “How?”
It's incredible to think that the last two Olympic champions are victims of Larry Nassar and one of them wants to make a comeback, but demanded that she see change within the organization that got her to that level and it's not really showing. So there's still so much anger and sadness for what happened and still a lot of grieving for 156 women that made victim impact statements who are still affected by the abuse they sustained 15 years ago by the same man.
Meg Akehi: This for me has hit me on so many different levels. There's a fear also of who else is out there. I think through all the students that I care about that were athletes here [at MSU] and I'm bracing myself for more names to come forward. I'm just imagining all the student athletes that are still out there that are thinking, “Well no, that's not what happened to me.” They’re not ready to call themselves victims or to come forward now. There's so many barriers to this. I'm more reeling from the the sight of the victims and wondering what their healing process is going to be like. The hearing is a step in that, but for some of them maybe not as healing as they thought it would be.
How do you respond as a Christian in the midst of all this, right? It's hard to talk about forgiveness when people are so angry. It's hard to talk about God's love and grace in the midst of people who are still in so much pain. Some are further along in their healing process. Some of the victims who were able to share their hope for forgiveness with Nassar in the hearing stood out, but then there are also a lot of people there who really aren't ready to even think about that and don't want to right now—and that's totally understandable.
How do we make sense of God's love, mercy, and graciousness in this horrific situation?
Akehi: I don't know. It's gut-wrenching just to say that, right? Why does God let these things happen? In some ways, all of us who are in ministry have had practice answering that question for the students we've worked with. The answer isn't different, but when you scale it up to something like this it sticks in your throat a little bit more, you know? Especially these innocent girls that were so young and held hostage to this because of their dreams, because they were elite athletes.
The phrase “the vulnerability of the elite athlete” is what keeps resonating for me because the girls didn't want to give up on their dream. Their dreams were at risk because of their injury and then the way they were abused made it hard to speak out because that also threatened their dream. [Nassar] could do whatever he wanted to them because he was protected by the fact that they were so vulnerable. Not just because they were young children, but because they were elite athletes who were who had already sacrificed so much to pursue their dreams.
Anyone who has sacrificed a lot to develop a skill gets this a little bit more, but it's really hard to put yourself in that space unless you have been an elite athlete whose dreams are in danger and you think of all the things that have already been sacrificed that you don't want to risk losing.
Hammons: Early on in this, I chose to engage. I think it's hard for the Christian community to lean in and engage when people are so raw. I heard from more non-Christ followers during all the other girls’ testimonies and then I heard from the Christ followers after Rachael [Denhollander] weaved in the gospel and that is my call to change. If we're gonna weave in grace and forgiveness, it's leaning in and listening when people are raw and broken and hurting.
Akehi: I'm glad you brought that up because I've had a hard time with this. I listened to Rachael Denhollander and knew who she was before the clip went viral—before Christians started sharing her testimony on social media—because I'm following this case. I knew she was the first person that contacted the Indianapolis Star and those are the ones that I have focused on listening to.
Maybe this is redemptive for Rachael. But maybe we are also victimizing her further by taking her and using her in a way that she didn't agree to. I know it's a clip, it's online, it's public access. But she also didn't ask to be the poster girl for how to share the gospel in the face of someone who has violated her, confronted with something unimaginable.
The whole point is that they've [sex abuse victims] lost control and this trial and this hearing is a process of them regaining control. Did she—I don't know if it’s right, but the question exists—did she lose control again because we have taken her image and slapped it up on every website that we can? I want people to see it but, the way that we're doing it makes me uncomfortable.
Murray: I've been following this story since August 2016 so when the Olympics happened and USA Gymnastics announced that Larry Nassar was no longer going to be the team doctor, I remember distinctly in July right before that there's a podcast that I listened to where they interviewed him and I in my head I was like, “Oh he's such a great doctor. He's taking such good care of these athletes,” and he was being praised for the work that he's done in getting these athletes to the level that they were at. Just how high he was held for the work that he was doing and somehow everything else slipped through the cracks is extremely frustrating.
I haven't, even in the midst of that time, gotten to a place where I can totally grasp and understand and apply God's grace and forgiveness to the situation because every time I think I'm getting closer there's another victim that comes out. Every time I get a step closer there's another layer of this whole deep-rooted injustice that is brought into the light and it makes me more angry because I just think what has taken so long to see this man is the monster that he really is.
I don't think we can truly make sense of God's grace and love and forgiveness until we've fully grasp and understand His wrath and His justice if God was not just then we would have no need for a savior. If He was not just then we would never understand and experience His grace.
I think my anger is justified and I am so thankful that Rachael Denhollander was able to extend forgiveness to him and was able to use her platform, but that does not take away the raw anger and the demand of justice from every other victim that made a statement in that courtroom. I really appreciate that in the midst of her extending forgiveness and sharing the gospel she still demanded the judge give him the largest sentence available under the law because forgiveness is not a release of what comes as result of sin.
Just because I'm a Christ follower doesn't mean I'm not gonna suffer consequences when I sin. It means that I'm eternally forgiven and that I have God's grace and I have that assurance of salvation, but I still have consequences here on earth and I think we need to remember that we look to Larry Nassar and to anyone that could be held accountable for allowing this to happen.
I've had people say, “You're just so angry. Justice is being served. Why are you so angry?” I deserve to be angry and I have a right to be angry and all of these victims have a right to be angry. I think if we weren't angry, there's a problem. People who are not angry? I really want them to examine why they are not fired up.
What hope can survivors cling to? Can they completely heal from the pain they’re feeling?
Akehi: The thing with any grief process—especially with something like this—is it's so individual and everyone's in such a different place. Some of these women have known since the 90s that what happened to them was wrong and no one listened to them. Other women have wondered for years. Other women have stuffed it down and refused to think about it. They're all in such different places. You could hear that in the stories.
I think it's dangerous for us to impose what healing should look like. Healing is a personal process and it's going to look different for each of the victims and their families and friends. There's always hope for healing, but there's always a cost to it and it can take a long time to experience it. Healing happens in community—we need each other—and I'm encouraged that many of the victims are finding community in each other. That's definitely a positive outcome of these hearings and is one of the greatest signs of hope that I have for healing among the survivors.
Hammons: I think of what each of them has done to take this step to bring this into the light. In God's kingdom design, when anything is brought into the light that's where He has access to meet them and where others in Christian community can meet them. I was really sad to hear Rachael Denhollander lost her church community when she chose to come out with all of this. Again, I don't know the details around that, but it's gonna take very courageous men and women who can enter into the healing process with these survivors and that is my hope and prayer.
Murray: I agree with everything you both said. I think, too, of how many of these survivors have not been listened to for so long. I felt convicted on that last week and tried to create space that I could listen to the victim impact statements of each of them. Even in just listening to their statements you could tell that they all are coping with their grief with their pain with the consequences of Larry Nassar's sins against them in a different way and that they’re in a different place in the process.
Christians like to wrap up suffering with a bow and shiny ribbon and say “Oh, suffering gives you joy, suffering brings you closer to the Lord, it's a part of the sanctifying process.” All of that is true, but we don't know where each of these survivors are on their faith journey and so to tell someone that in the midst of their grief or their suffering or their mourning or their processing of this situation is not helping anyone at all.
It's frustrating to see this expectation on all these different women in different places with different stories and different experiences to fit our expectation or just fit a mold the church wants.
What does a path forward look like and God’s hand in it?
Murray: This story is not new. It might be the largest, but an adult who has power and is able to manipulate young athletes to exploit them for his own pleasure, selfishness or sexual perversion? That's not new. We've seen it in track, we've seen it in swimming, we've seen it in Taekwondo. It's all over it's not just Larry Nassar, it's not just USA Gymnastics. It's a sports culture problem.
As Christ followers we know the Bible is very clear about how God feels on sin and justice issues so there are practical things we can do beyond praying for the victims. There's a bill sitting in the House [of Representatives] that would protect amateur athletes that has yet to be voted on. We can call our representatives and tell them that we expect them to vote YES for that bill.
We can demand that the sports governing bodies that we participate in implement safe sport policies or have a public watch list for potential predators or to suspend coaches or people within sports to investigate them if there are accusations of sexual abuse or any kind of abuse. I think a lot of times it's easy for the church or for Christians to say, “I'm praying for you” or “I want justice, too.” There are actions that we can follow and we can do that are honoring and glorifying to God.
Akehi: I think gymnastics is particularly isolated, but when you think of college athletes we're so isolated, right? Your doctors are sports doctors who report to your coaches and report your progress to your coaches … a lot of this is the idolatry of sports and and we've all shared in that in some ways.
When people ask how did this happen, part of me is like, “I don't know,” and another part of me is like, “I definitely know how something like this could happen for so long.” I was a Division 1 volleyball player and I get it—everyone is part of the same system and if you rock one part of the system the whole thing comes down. We've seen the fall out at every university where a major scandal has happened. If you are a part of an organization you don't want that to happen because your future, your reputation, the things that you love are all connected with this. I'm not saying that people knew Nassar was abusing girls and didn't want to bring that to light, but even when allegations are finally brought forward, I believe most people's natural tendency is for self-preservation and therefore it's easy to hope the allegations amount to nothing.
Point being, we have to set up systems for student athletes that are outside the athletic department so they have someone they can talk to who is distant enough from the program to be able to act objectively.
Hammons: For people on the inside of a system, what does it look like to use your voice, and to Meg’s point, to be a person from outside the sports system like staff, friends, and family members to listen.
Akehi: How do we as a sports ministry engage at an organizational level as an advocacy unit? And not just for our Christian athletes, but because the Christian thing to do is to advocate for the vulnerable and student-athletes are very vulnerable. Most people don't think of athletes as being vulnerable that way. As I've reflected more and more, I just see again the way that athletes are held hostage by their dreams of wanting to play.
How are we a presence to impact the culture of sports, period? Not just how do we work with student athletes on an individual level but on this systemic, cultural level. How do we also engage on an organizational and policy level? We need to have that conversation as a ministry.
Murray: As an organization and as sports fans, campus ministers, former student athletes and former USAG athletes, we are taught to be set apart from the culture around us and I don't think in the area of sports -- especially in the extreme brokenness of sports -- that we have fulfilled that calling that God has given us to be set apart from the culture.
Could you imagine being a non-Christian athlete who experienced abuse to hear a Christian organization say I am for you and I hear you? That would be so powerful because they're not getting that from anywhere else or if they are getting it they didn't get it until the victim impact statements when in fact many of these survivors have come forward before this past week.
Akehi: There's an opportunity for us all to soul-search. How I react to the situation is instructive about some of the beliefs that I have about God's grace and His love. If His grace isn't big enough for Larry Nassar, I'm missing something. The point of God's grace is that it doesn't go to the deserving. It's a good time for us to think about that and sit with that and say, “In what other ways do we misunderstand God's grace?” God has grace for the perpetrator, grace for the victims, grace for their parents, grace for the communities impacted, grace for the administration. Consequences are part of God's grace, too, which also sometimes get left out. If that feels to us like a scandal bigger than the one we're discussing, then another problem becomes our limited understanding of grace.
As we are interacting with people who are reacting to the situation, there's something for all of us that God wants to do to bring us closer to Him.
Hammons: I have to believe that in this segment ahead as things are brought to the light, God is doing something new and bringing redemptive power.