During the first day of sentencing this week of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics doctor who will spend the rest of his life in prison and is accused of sexually abusing more than 150 women and girls, no MSU officials were in the courtroom. A school spokesperson said they didn’t want to take away the focus from the victims. Keep that in mind when you read this crushing Detroit News story.
Interviewing a number of former MSU athletes, the Detroit News found that at least 14 MSU staffers and representatives were made aware of Nassar’s abuse over more than two decades and beginning as early as 1992, and nothing was ever done about him. Among those officials notified of a Title IX complaint and police report against Nassar was MSU President Lou Anna Simon.
How was Nassar allowed to get away with this for so long? The brutal failure of an institution to take action is explicitly illuminated in interview after interview with athletes who were abused, reported it, and then were either ignored or told not to pursue it any further.
• In 1997, 16-year-old high school gymnast Larissa Boyce was treated by Nassar at MSU, where he would digitally penetrate her vagina in weekly treatment sessions. Boyce told a coach, who told her to tell Kathie Klages, head gymnastics coach at MSU. Klages told Boyce she must have been misunderstanding what was happening, but gathered a group of youth gymnasts in her office and asked if it had happened to anyone else. One, a woman who declined to give her name, said Nassar had been abusing her too.
“I remember feeling — finally a female would be an advocate for me, and tell my dad and my mom and I won’t have to tell them about this awkward thing,” said the woman, now 35, who has filed a civil lawsuit against Nassar and MSU. “Finally we’re going to get help, something will change and we won’t have to go back to him. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, I felt very shamed.”
Boyce also felt intimidated and humiliated, and remembers what Klages said about filing a report.
“She said, ‘I can file this, but there are going to be serious consequences for you and Nassar,’” Boyce said. “I said I didn’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
The woman says Klages told Nassar, but not her parents—or anyone else.
(Klages, who retired last February, declined through her lawyer to answer questions for this story.)
• In 1999, MSU runner Christie Achenbach was treated by Nassar for a hamstring injury.
“He said his new way of treating people was going internally and manipulating the pelvic floor in order to help with any problem a female might have,” said Achenbach, then 21. “He said he had to go in, but he didn’t tell me that the way he was going to go in was not using lubricant like a doctor would. He just kept rubbing back and forth — that’s when I knew something was going on ... Then he put his fingers up inside me.”
Achenbach reported this to her coach, Kelli Bert. According to Achenbach, Bert told her “he’s an Olympic doctor and he should know what he is doing.”
(Bert tearfully told the Detroit News she did not recall the interaction.)
• In 2000, MSU softball player Tiffany Thomas Lopez saw Nassar for back pain, and was digitally penetrated by Nassar during treatments. She told her team trainer, who referred her to MSU athletic trainer Destiny Teachnor-Hauk.
“I was told [by Teachnor-Hauk] if I felt extremely uncomfortable then of course we could pursue something but I was assured this was actual medical treatment,” said Thomas Lopez. “If I decided to pursue something, it was going to cast a burden over my family. She said it was going cause a lot of heartache, it was going to cause a lot of trauma and why would I want drag him through this?”
Teachnor-Hauk told investigators in 2014 that “has never had a complaint about Dr. Nassar.” In 2017, Teachnor-Hauk told police and FBI that she “never had an athlete tell her that Nassar made them uncomfortable.”
Teachnor-Hauk declined to be interviewed by the Detroit News. She is still the athletic trainer in charge of MSU women’s gymnastics.
There are more stories like these in the Detroit News story, and doubtlessly many, many more that haven’t yet been fully told. The echoes of Penn State are deafening, both in the length and breadth of abuse, and in its failure to properly be addressed up the chain of command. This is a particular failing of large institutions, where it’s possible for employees to technically do the right thing by alerting superiors and never following up, while those superiors always maintain plausible deniability. (The university’s legal defense team claims its investigations found no evidence that anyone on campus was aware of Nassar’s illegal behavior.)
When Nassar was the subject of parallel Title IX and MSU police investigations in 2014, university president Lou Anna Simon was made aware of the investigations’ existence—but, she says, not any details, nor even Nassar’s identity.
“I was informed that a sports medicine doctor was under investigation,” said Simon, who made the brief comments after appearing in court Wednesday to observe a sentencing hearing for Nassar. “I told people to play it straight up, and I did not receive a copy of the report. That’s the truth.”
The Title IX complaint, investigated internally by the school, found that Nassar’s medical treatment was appropriate. The police investigation was referred to the Ingham County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to file charges.
According to a later MSU police report, after those 2014 investigations into Nassar were closed and the doctor was cleared, at least 12 more assaults occurred.