Late last month, former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher forewent her anonymity to publically identify Dr. Larry Nassar as her abuser. More than 100 women have come forward in the case against the doctor, who specialized in treating female gymnasts and worked for both Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics as well as attending four Olympic games as the team physician. In violation of USA Gymnastics policy, Dantzscher reported that she was alone with the doctor on several occasions when she was seeing him to resolve her lower back problems. Without going into graphic detail, we can report that Dr. Nassar would disguise his abuse as methods of treatment for the female athletes as young as thirteen.
Unfortunately, sexual abuse in sports has been occurring since time immemorial. You may remember the sexual abuse scandal that erupted at Penn State, following allegations that former football coach Jerry Sandusky had been abusing young boys for over fifteen years. (He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison for his crimes of serial child rape.) Sandusky’s case has a lot in common with the newly-emerged allegations against Nassar--and unless we want to hear about a third coach somewhere following in their footsteps, it’s time we start paying attention to the pattern laid out for us by Sandusky and Nassar.
Routine Activity Theory contends that the commission of a crime requires three elements: a motivated offender, a suitable target and the absence of a capable guardian. That’s a pretty big idea, but when we break it down, it’s a pretty good blueprint for understanding the recurring problem of sexual abuse in sports--and how we can advocate for change.
The first element is a motivated offender. In these cases, we have men in positions of authority who seek to gratify their own desires with no regard for the well-being of those entrusted to their care. The offenders--men like Nassar or Sandusky--are well-respected in their field, and their victims are expected to revere and obey them. Because of their chosen line of work, these offenders have an unlimited victim pool--and the implicit promise that their victims would never risk tarnishing their own reputations by challenging that of their attacker. That alone provides men like these with motivation enough to take advantage of countless individuals for their own perverse benefit.
Suitable targets weren’t hard for Nassar and Sandusky to find: both sexual offenders worked with very young athletes by design. Sandusky preyed on boys between the ages of eight and ten and purposely targeted boys who did not have a father living in the home. He would shower these boys with attention and gifts, earning their trust and admiration before assaulting them. Sandusky exercised his ability to exploit the vulnerability of young fatherless boys. Similarly, Nassar as a physician was intimately trusted with the well-being of young girls, which created the opportunity for him to abuse his authority as a doctor to impose himself on his charges. The girls had no way of knowing that penetration was not a medical necessity and were abused continuously as a result of the misguided trust they were forced to place in Dr. Nassar.
As for the absence of a capable guardian, perhaps the fact that this is a common occurrence in these types of environments can help us understand why so many young athletes experience sexual abuse. As mandated by their training regimens, young athletes spend a significant amount of time away from home. It isn’t uncommon for serious athletes considering a professional career to be homeschooled, thus further removing them from contact outside the situation in which the abuse may be occurring. In her testimony against Dr. Nassar, Jamie Dantzscher detailed how she was allowed to visit with the doctor alone, even though that was not allowed in the USA Gymnastics guidelines. The lack of supervision allowed for the abuse to continue. And in cases like these, any outsiders who are privy to information about the abuse are often administrators who are decline (and are thus morally unfit) to take responsibility as suitable guardians to report the behavior.
As hefty as it is, Routine Activity Theory makes it a lot easier to understand why young athletes are often victimized by those who are entrusted to care for them. Because the athletes are young and easily manipulated, authority figures have an easy time selecting suitable targets. The offenders themselves continuously get away with the abuse and therefore feel safe replicating their behavior. The responsibility then falls upon outside parties who are aware of the abuse and should be taking the initiative to prevent the abuse from continuing--but who feel no moral imperative to do so.
As with all other sexual abuse, victims in cases like these should not be faulted for what has happened to them. Rather, they should be encouraged to tell their stories in the hopes that we can prevent this kind of abuse in the future. [WOULD ALSO LOVE SOME STUFF FROM YOU HERE ABOUT WHAT WE CAN DO, BASED ON WHAT WE’VE LEARNED ABOUT ROUTINE ACTIVITY THEORY, TO CHANGE THE CONVERSATION AND MAKE IT HARDER FOR THIS SORT OF THING TO HAPPEN AGAIN/BE IGNORED]
What to do if you suspect abuse is taking place: