AP top sports story of ’18: Nassar abuse, gymnastics turmoil
The depths of Larry Nassar’s depravity began to emerge some 15 months before the calendar flipped to 2018 — when reports of his sexual abuse first appeared in newspaper stories that would eventually lead to a trial and, ultimately, to the doctor’s imprisonment.
But it was January 2018, the month when more than 150 female athletes testified at Nassar’s sentencing hearing for convictions on child-porn and sex-abuse charges, that marked a turning point in a crisis that has inflicted untold damage.
The testimony brought the true nature and number of Nassar’s crimes to the fore, triggering spasms of anger, soul-searching and attempts at reform, while also giving women in sports — and society in general — a more powerful voice when it comes to exposing abuse that had been swept out of the public’s conscience for decades.
Nassar’s crimes and the chaos they provoked — the massive turnover at Michigan State, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, to say nothing of the trauma wrought on the victims themselves — was the Story of the Year in balloting by AP members and editors. The Nassar saga earned more than double the number of votes as the second- and third-place finishers: the Eagles first Super Bowl championship and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a law that prohibited sports gambling outside of Nevada.
The year 2018 was also notable for a string of stirring comebacks and surprises: Maryland-Baltimore County pulled the first 16 vs. 1 upset in an NCAA Tournament that was also highlighted by Loyola-Chicago’s run to the Final Four, spurred on by a 98-year-old superfan, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt . Tiger Woods returned to form, nearly winning the PGA before capturing the season-ending Tour Championship . The expansion Las Vegas Knights made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Washington Capitals.
There was a steady trickle of news about the still-emerging evidence and response to the doping scandal in Russia that has sullied the last three Olympics, with potential for more.
But the steadiest flow of cringe-inducing headlines came out of the Nassar scandal — not only detailing his depravity, but also the slow, often-ham-handed way in which some of the most powerful people in sports dealt with the aftermath.
Those who failed paid dearly, and it’s no exaggeration to say the entire Olympic movement inside the United States could be reconfigured because of it.
USOC chairman Larry Probst, CEO Scott Blackmun and sport performance director Alan Ashley all left or were forced out under a cloud. In his going-away speech, Probst said despite the USOC’s success under his watch, “it is our collective failure to keep you safe that that will forever cause me deep and profound regret.” Brought on to repair USA Gymnastics, president Kerry Perry got forced out after a series of embarrassing and out-of-touch missteps. Her predecessor, Steve Penny, was arrested on charges he ordered files pertaining to Nassar removed from the team’s training center at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas.
Blackmun’s successor, Sarah Hirshland, eventually called for decertification of USA Gymnastics — an unwieldy process that could be hastened by Congress, which held a number of hearings and called for changes in the law that governs the entire, dysfunctional U.S. Olympic charter.
Ironically, one of the biggest drivers of change turned out to be the world’s best gymnast. A Nassar victim herself, Olympic and world champion Simone Biles was unabashed in calling it like she saw it when change wasn’t coming quickly enough — or didn’t make any sense. Though hers may have been the best-known voice, it wasn’t the only one.
Survivors are cautiously optimistic.
“There is a broader cultural impact in terms of survivors speaking up,” said Rachel Denhollander, whose story of abuse at the hands of Nassar triggered the entire meltdown. “Prosecutors are saying they’re seeing a significant increase. A lot of them are tying them back to the sentencing hearing with Larry.”
Though he worked with high-profile gymnasts in a volunteer capacity, Nassar did most of his damage at his full-time job at Michigan State.
The school has settled lawsuits totaling $500 million . Its university president, athletic director, gymnastics coach, vice president of legal affairs, a dean and a school doctor have all left under the cloud of how the university failed, time and again, when presented with evidence that Nassar was a serial abuser. Some of those who have left are awaiting trials for enabling Nassar in some way.
Hundreds of gymnasts’ lawsuits against the USOC and USA Gymnastics are still pending. More Congressional hearings will be scheduled. More failures are certain to be detailed, and possibly some positive solutions — few and far between as the recriminations have piled up — can be found, as well.
The one sure thing is that even though 2018 is coming to an end, the pain, lessons and impact felt from the Nassar saga will resonate in 2019 and beyond.
“I think we have opened this door and revealed a lot of bad truths about our sport and sports in general,” said one of Nassar’s many victims, Olympic champion Jordyn Wieber. “Not only in sports in general, but a big child-abuse problem. People are opening their eyes a little bit more.”
AP Sports Writer Will Graves contributed to this report.