Michigan’s attorney general has launched an investigation into Michigan State University, and the entire board of directors of USA Gymnastics is resigning, after team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison last week for sexually assaulting and abusing more than 160 young female athletes. We speak with reporter Mark Alesia, part of the investigative team at The Indianapolis Star, which broke the story, and discuss his latest story, “What’s next for USA Gymnastics? A long, tough road at best.”
AMY GOODMAN: “Praying” performed by Kesha at Sunday night’s Grammy Awards. She was joined by many singers, including Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Andra Day. Kesha has sued her music producer, Dr. Luke, over alleged rape. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the latest developments in the case of longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who last week was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually assaulting and abusing more than 160 young female athletes, including Olympic gold medalists, under the guise of providing medical treatment at Michigan State University from 1997 until 2016. The university has faced widespread accusations of failing to investigate the accusations against him. Now the entire board of directors of USA Gymnastics is resigning, and Michigan State University athletic director Mark Hollis has announced he also is retiring, only days after the president of Michigan State University, Lou Anna Simon, resigned amid mounting questions about whether the university ignored reports of Dr. Nassar’s abuse.
Meanwhile, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he has launched an investigation of Michigan State University, where Nassar was a faculty member and physician at an on-campus clinic. This is Schuette speaking Saturday.
ATTORNEY GENERAL BILL SCHUETTE: It is abundantly clear that a full and complete investigation of what happened at Michigan State University, from the president’s office down, is required. Now, this investigation is and will continue to be independent. It will be thorough. It will be transparent. And it will be prompt. …
I don’t need advice from the Board of Trustees at MSU about how to conduct an investigation. Frankly, they should be the last ones to be providing advice, given their conduct throughout this entire episode. Their conduct throughout this entire episode speaks for itself.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This comes after Dr. Nassar was sentenced last week to up to 175 years in prison by Michigan Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, following a week of blistering statements in court by 156 of his victims, including Olympic gold medal-winning gymnasts Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, Jordyn Wieber and other female athletes. The women accused Nassar of abuse, including exposing himself in front of them, rubbing his genitals against their bodies and penetrating their vaginas with his fingers. This is Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, speaking in court.
RACHAEL DENHOLLANDER: How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?
Larry is a hardened and determined sexual predator. I know this firsthand. At age 15, when I suffered from chronic back pain, Larry sexually assaulted me repeatedly, under the guise of medical treatment, for nearly a year. He did this with my own mother in the room, carefully and perfectly obstructing her view so that she would not know what he was doing.
His ability to gain my trust and the trust of my parents, his grooming and carefully calculated, brazen sexual assault was the result of deliberate, premeditated, intentional and methodological patterns of abuse, patterns that were rehearsed long before I walked through Larry’s exam room door, and was continued to be perpetrated, I believe, on a daily basis for 16 more years, until I filed the police report. Larry is the most dangerous type of abuser, one who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to ensure a steady stream of young children to assault.
And while Larry is unlikely to live past his federal sentence, he is not the only predator out there. And this sentence will send a message about how seriously abuse will be taken. So I ask: How much is a little girl worth?
AMY GOODMAN: Larry Nassar pleaded guilty to sexual assault charges. During his sentencing, Judge Aquilina told Dr. Nassar, quote, “I’ve just signed your death warrant.” Nassar has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison, after being convicted of child pornography charges in a separate case. Congress also is investigating the matter. A House of Representatives investigation will examine allegations of sexual harassment by officials in other sports, including swimming and tae kwon do.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Mark Alesia, a reporter with the investigative team at The Indianapolis Star that broke the story about Dr. Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. His team also helped expose USA Gymnastics’ failure to report allegations of sexual abuse by coaches to authorities. Alesia’s most recent piece, “What’s next for USA Gymnastics? A long, tough road at best.”
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Mark.
MARK ALESIA: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, I think people around the country are just reeling from this story. How is it conceivable that this went on for decades, one doctor at Michigan State? And clearly, you show, it goes beyond that. What is your—what is your assessment of how many mothers and their daughters, families, had leveled complaints against him, as he abused so many, believed at least 160 young women?
MARK ALESIA: Well, over—going as far back as 1997, I believe it was, gymnasts did go to adults to report the abuse, and nothing happened. Gymnasts went to police, and nothing happened. Gymnasts went to Michigan State’s Title IX office, and nothing happened. Gymnasts went to the gymnastics coach at Michigan State University, and nothing happened. And so, the women who said that they didn’t think they’d be believed if they came forward anyway were probably right.
And then, for the rest, the survivors talked about this charismatic doctor who was a con man, a manipulator, who groomed girls as—with his Olympic experience and using his fame to gain trust. And the girls, and now women, often said that they were uncomfortable with what he was doing, but they thought to themselves, “If the great Larry Nassar is doing it, you know, who am I to say it’s wrong?” And so it continued.
But it is important to note, there were people who came forward, and there were adults who failed these children and probably could have stopped the spectacle that we saw the last two weeks in a Michigan court.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I’m wondering if you could talk about, again, why this happened. Clearly, USA Gymnastics has a huge profile in Olympic sports. Was it the very fear that this money machine, this enormously influential sport, would be somehow or other scandalized that made a lot of these officials seek to keep this information down or look away from what these women were saying? Because I’m reminded very much of the Penn State situation, the scandal at Penn State, because Penn State football, Joe Paterno, was like the god of sports in Pennsylvania, and, of course, one of his assistants was abusing the athletes.
MARK ALESIA: Well, what we found was a culture of fear, really, a culture of secrecy, throughout USA Gymnastics, not only at the elite level, but even moving down to the club level. Gymnastics is a judged sport. It’s not like track and field, where the top three finishers in the 100 meters goes to the Olympics. Power at USA Gymnastics was concentrated in very few people. And women who had worked their entire lives, worked very hard their entire lives, fought through injuries, for a chance to be on the Olympic team, didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
Another problem is, the Olympic team, the gymnastics Olympic team, is chosen by committee. It’s not chosen by the scores they’re awarded at the Olympic trials. They do have an Olympic trials, but a committee makes the decision. So, the message is clear that you don’t—you don’t ruffle feathers, or maybe you’ll find yourself off the Olympic team.
But it goes even further down than that. As a judged sport, maybe somebody doesn’t want to ruffle feathers of a judge who might be judging a mid-level gymnastics meet. It’s a situation where a lot of these gymnastics club owners, they’re small businessmen. They didn’t want their clubs associated with child sexual abuse, so coaches were often just fired and told to just go away. And some of them went from club to club to club and continued abusing little girls.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Mark, I just wanted to ask you: Could you talk about how you came onto this story? Because, actually, your investigative team, as often happens in investigative projects, was looking at another aspect, more of how coaches were abusing athletes, and then, suddenly, someone came forward and changed the direction of your investigation?
MARK ALESIA: Yes. My colleague Marisa Kwiatkowski received a tip about a court case in a small town in southern Georgia, where USA Gymnastics was being sued and accused of negligence by a woman who had been abused by a coach. The coach, years earlier, had been on USA—or should have been on USA Gymnastics’ radar, after it received complaints about him, including one that said, “Somebody, do something about this guy, or he’s going to rape someone.” From that court case, there were a lot of documents that we were able to follow to develop the story. We worked probably six months on a story with—also with my colleague Tim Evans. We published on August 4th, 2016, a story basically saying that USA Gymnastics did not report all complaints of abuse to authorities immediately, which, of course, is what you should do.
That morning, midmorning, day of publication, we received an email from Rachael Denhollander. And she said, “I don’t know if this is going to apply to what you’re doing. I was abused by a doctor at USA Gymnastics, not a coach.” And she invited us to her home in Louisville. My colleagues and I split up the various tips. I happened to get Rachael to follow up on. I went down to Louisville with photographer Robert Scheer. And what we found was pretty much what the world saw when Rachael spoke last week: a stay-home mother of three, all five and under, a lawyer, very well-spoken, very organized and diligent, and, we thought, very sincere.
And so, from that, we wrote a story, that also included a lawsuit, a civil lawsuit that was filed anonymously in California. The person who filed it later came out as Olympian Jamie Dantzscher. So, after that, we were—well, we received a lot of criticism from people who supported Nassar, and they let us know it. But there were also a lot of survivors who came forward, maybe 10 or 15 in the first two or three weeks. And then it just snowballed into the spectacle that we saw last week, with the searing testimony of 156 girls.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it was just astounding. I think they were going to have 60, and then the number just snowballed. Perhaps the most well known of the women to speak out against Larry Nassar—some called him Nassar, others said Nasser—was Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman. This is part of her testifying in court.
ALY RAISMAN: I am here to face you, Larry, so you can see I’ve regained my strength, that I’m no longer a victim, I’m a survivor. …
Now is the time to acknowledge that the very person who sits here before us now, who perpetrated the worst epidemic of sexual abuse in the history of sports, who is going to be locked up for a long, long time, this monster was also the architect of policies and procedures that are supposed to protect athletes from sexual abuse. …
Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.
AMY GOODMAN: During her testimony, the Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman also attacked USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee for allowing the sexual abuse to continue for decades.
ALY RAISMAN: Your abuse started 30 years ago, but that’s just the first reported incident we know of. If, over these many years, just one adult listened and had the courage and character to act, this tragedy could have been avoided. …
Neither USA Gymnastics nor the USOC have reached out to express sympathy or even offer support, not even to ask, 'How did this happen? What do you think we can do to help?' Why have I, and others here, probably, not heard anything from the leadership at the USOC? Why has the United States Olympic Committee been silent?
AMY GOODMAN: Gold medalist Aly Raisman. I want to turn now to Donna Markham, who testified in court against Dr. Larry Nassar. She is the mother of former gymnast Chelsea Markham, who was sexually abused by Dr. Nassar when she was 10 years old. Chelsea went on to commit suicide in 2009.
DONNA MARKHAM: In 2009, she took her own life, because she couldn’t deal with the pain anymore. It will be 10 years in March that I lost my baby. She was 23 years old. She would have been 33 now. And every day I miss her. Every day. And it all started with him. It all started with him and just became worse as the years went by, until she couldn’t deal with it anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Donna Markham, the mom of Chelsea Markham, who took her own life after being sexually abused by Nassar, years after that. As we wrap up, Mark Alesia, the judge in this case, a fierce advocate for the women, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, cleared her docket to allow more than 150 women to testify, and also became very controversial when she said, “I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.” Can you just speak about her and where this all leads?
MARK ALESIA: Well, yeah, she certainly has come under some criticism for how she conducted the sentencing hearing. But as someone who was there and knows some of the survivors, it was a situation where there was healing because of what she did, allowing all these women to speak and to confront Nassar, and I think that those two weeks catapulted this into people’s consciousness. I mean, our reporting has been out there for quite some time, and it took this, woman after woman after woman bravely giving—baring their souls and giving this searing testimony, to get people’s attention.
Now, as for the future, USA Gymnastics has to move forward with an entirely new board. They’ve lost a lot of their sponsors. And one of the people we spoke to for our story, yesterday, said that even if they implemented every—the exact right rules and the right policies, as fast as possible, sponsors are still going to sit back and want to look and see how it’s going. So that will take a while. And even if they do that, this person said, they better have a good public relations strategy, going in, to explain to the public why they’re investing in USA Gymnastics.
AMY GOODMAN: Will others be criminally charged for covering up?
MARK ALESIA: That remains to be seen. Michigan—you know, as you reported earlier, Michigan’s attorney general is going to be investigating the actions of Michigan State. So far, as far as we know, USA Gymnastics has only had a person it hired to come in to evaluate policies, and has not been criminally investigated, although I suppose it’s possible something is going on behind the scenes that we don’t know about.
AMY GOODMAN: Mark Alesia, we want to thank you for being with us, reporter with the investigative team at The Indianapolis Star, which broke the story in 2016 about Dr. Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts. His team also helped expose USA Gymnastics’ failure to report allegations of sexual abuse by coaches to authorities. And we’ll link to your latest piece, “What’s next for USA Gymnastics? A long, tough road at best.”
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a new question on the 2020 census? “Are you a U.S. citizen?” Stay with us.