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If only we’d listened to our young athletes

Fifteen years ago, Brianne Randall-Gay might have stopped one of the most prolific sexual predators the world of sports has ever known — if anyone had listened. She was a 17-year-old soccer and tennis player when she and her mother went to the Meridian Township Police Department in Michigan to report that Larry Nassar had sexually abused her. The police interviewed Brianne, then Nassar. They listened to him, and dismissed her. Case closed.

Nassar went on to abuse hundreds of young women and girls.

When Nassar got sentenced to prison last year, the police publicly apologized to Brianne for their profound failure. She told me about it in an interview for my book “The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down,” saying the apology left her with “complicated” feelings. While she appreciated the gesture, she wrestled with the fact that if the police had listened, years of abuse could have been stopped.

That has all changed now in the #MeToo era, right?

That’s what we may tell ourselves, but it’s not true. Despite the fact that we know the tremendous risks that women take to speak out — exposing themselves to harassment, abuse, gaslighting, and even death threats in some cases — society is still failing to listen.

In Bartow, Florida, a 13-year girl who reported a rape was deemed a liar and prosecuted for filing a false report in 2017. Then the accused man sexually abused her again. Now he is in jail.

Her story echoes one from a decade ago, when an 18-year-old rape survivor in Lynnwood, Washington, was also labeled a liar and charged with filing a false report. Her attacker went on to rape other women. Now he is in jail too. That case is at the heart of the new Netflix series “Unbelievable.”

In August, the National Women’s Law Center filed a lawsuit against the Fayette County Board of Education in Georgia on behalf of a teenager who said she was expelled from high school after reporting a sexual assault on campus in 2017. She reported an assault, yet was accused of sexual impropriety herself. The school district reportedly said it expects to prevail.

Her experience mirrors that of a young woman I interviewed six years ago: She was kicked out of high school in Henderson, Texas, after reporting a rape in the band room. Accused of public indecency, she fought back, sparking a Department of Education probe that found the school in violation of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools.

Under the law, schools must investigate reports of sexual violence, but her school failed to do so, relying solely on a police investigation that deemed the sex consensual. The school declined to comment on the case, but said it revised its policies to comply with the law.

In all of these cases, past and present, the women were not only disbelieved, but punished.

Survivors are often dismissed in more subtle ways as well. Many women in the Nassar case told me that they continue to feel unheard, despite sending their abuser to jail. One reason, they said, is that many in the media seem more interested in the famous survivors, not them. Nassar is known for working with Olympic gymnasts, but he preyed on young women and girls from across the community in his hometown of Lansing, Michigan — aspiring young gymnasts, dancers, runners, volleyball players, and many others.

In reporting my book, I spoke with 25 courageous Nassar survivors, spanning nearly three decades, from the very first of his known victims to the very last. Many told me their surprising stories for the first time. Most had grown up with him in Michigan, some from the time they were toddlers. Since the book’s publication, I’ve spoken with people from around the country about how we as a society treat survivors of sexual trauma, and about where we go from here. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend.

Many people believe that this story ended in the courtroom. But that was just the beginning. Some women didn’t realize they had been abused until they saw other women stand up in court. And all of the women have to navigate a lifetime of emotional fallout — nightmares, flashbacks, feelings of self-doubt.

As a society, we remain too quick to dismiss survivors. We find it too easy to simply move on. We need to put survivors and their stories front and center — not just once, not just when the victims are famous, but always. Every single time.

It takes guts to publicly identify yourself as a survivor of sexual abuse. When you do so, people you meet — at a job interview, on a first date — know something deeply personal about you before you say hello. All it takes is a Google search. If you have kids, you have to figure out when and how to tell them before they inevitably encounter the details online.

The brave women who spoke with me provide crucial new accounts — of rape, brainwashing, gaslighting, physical and mental abuse, and collusion among the enablers — that significantly advance what we know about this scandal. Their knowledge of Nassar’s evolution from doctor to predator can stop future predators.

Among their many revelations, the women offered profound insight into a coach they say was a key enabler of the Nassar abuse, John Geddert. He worked with Nassar in Michigan for decades, rising to Olympic coach. They said he created a mentally and physically abusive training environment at his gym, blaming girls for their injuries, trampling their self-esteem, and making them vulnerable to the sexual abuse. Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport, in January 2018, after gymnasts spoke out about him at the Nassar hearings. He promptly announced his retirement, saying in a letter to parents that the suspension was based on false allegations. He told CNN that year, “I am not perfect but I certainly am not one to harm children.”

Sara Teristi, who may be the very first Nassar survivor, shared her story with me for the first time, revealing groundbreaking insight into the early years of Nassar and Geddert. She said Geddert saw Nassar sexually abusing her as a child in the late 1980s, when Nassar would ice her chest and touch her nipples as she lay topless on a table.

She said Geddert did not report the abuse, but instead, mocked her breasts and a lump on her chest from an injury, calling it her “third boob.” Then he began calling her by the nickname Third Boob, humiliating her in front of her fellow gymnasts. Sara ended up repressing the memories of the sexual abuse for decades, until she saw the women confront Nassar in court. The memories came crashing back, and she told the police about her experience with both the coach and doctor.

Former gymnast Shelby Root also shared her story for the first time, telling me about an experience that differs from those of the Nassar survivors, but provides important insight, showing how the world of gymnastics — in which coaches and doctors have the inherent trust of the girls in their care — can create a damaging environment on many levels.

She said that in the 1980s, Geddert groomed her for a sexual relationship that he initiated when she left his gym for college at 18. Like most gymnasts who had grown up immersed in training, she was isolated and vulnerable, and had been taught to trust and obey her coach. She thought he loved her. Instead, she told me, he discarded her. His actions left her suicidal, she said, and violated the code of conduct of Olympic watchdog SafeSport. In sharing her story, she told me she hoped to help other families recognize the signs of grooming.

These are significant allegations at a time when Geddert is under investigation by the Michigan attorney general for unspecified complaints. His lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

As for Nassar, young women and girls started reporting him decades ago. In the early 1990s, Sara Teristi tried to talk to a college counselor about what he had done to her as a child, but got dismissed, she told me. She recalled how the counselor said, “No coach or doctor would be allowed to treat their athletes that way.” Sara, in an emotionally raw state from the physical and mental abuse of her childhood, retreated, burying the memories. “I shut up and didn’t say anything else,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to run out of there.”

Imagine if the counselor had listened.

In 1997, Larissa Boyce, a 16-year-old gymnast in a youth program at Michigan State University, reported Nassar to the coach after he abused her and a friend, she told me. The coach didn’t tell the police or parents, but rather, told Nassar. “That just gave him so much confidence and power,” Larissa said. She ended up getting in trouble with Nassar for doubting him. As a kid, she thought she must have a dirty mind. Feeling guilty and embarrassed, she got back on his table. He continued to abuse her for years.

Imagine if the coach had listened.

The coach, Kathie Klages, has now been charged with lying to police for saying she was unaware of the abuse. An attorney for Klages told me she is innocent.

In 1999, 16-year-old gymnast Lindsey Schuett confided in a high school counselor that Nassar had abused her, but the counselor didn’t contact any authorities, she told me. Lindsey ended up back on Nassar’s table. She decided that if he abused her again, she would scream. He did, and she did. “I screamed and cried; I didn’t stop,” she said. “I wanted everyone to hear me.”

Imagine if anyone had listened.

In 2014, Amanda Thomashow reported Nassar to the police and to officials at Michigan State University after he abused her at the school’s sports medicine clinic. The university cleared Nassar, then issued two separate reports on the case — one for Amanda, saying that the doctor had not violated the sexual harassment policy, and another for staff members, saying that the case had exposed “significant problems” and potential legal liabilities at the clinic. Those details were omitted from Amanda’s report, leaving her feeling gaslighted, she told me. A spokesperson for the university told me that the school has revised its procedures and now issues only one report in such cases.

The prosecutor’s office in the case, meanwhile, declined to file charges.

Imagine if the authorities had listened.

These are just a few of the stories of the many young women and girls who reported Nassar over the course of nearly three decades. If anyone had listened, hundreds of women could have been spared.

The conversations swirling on social media today about the series “Unbelievable” focus on its stark portrayals of how not to treat survivors of rape and sexual assault. They serve as an important reminder that the problem persists.

It’s time to learn from these profound failures. It’s time to listen — and act.

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