Athlete A
Safe Blog

Athlete A: What it teaches us… and fails to teach us about sexual violence against children

19th August 2020


This past weekend, I finally saw Athlete A, the acclaimed Netflix documentary about USA Gymnastics, the survivors of doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse, and the investigative reporters that exposed a toxic culture at USAG that enabled and protected his crimes.

I was on the edge of my seat while I watched, with a foreboding discomfort that gripped me through the credits, and maybe a lingering hope that the story would somehow present itself in a way that left me feeling better about what happened to the hundreds of young athletes that fell into a nightmare.

The film reminds us how regularly survivors are ignored and how often they are chastised for reporting an abuser. It reveals how self-interested institutions can themselves turn into cloaks of protection for the most heinous crimes. It shows how journalists, investigators and lawyers can become allies, exposing and prosecuting perpetrators despite potential threats to their safety. It amplifies the voices of brave survivors who are key drivers in an important discourse that is, unfortunately, still considered taboo by so many. And it does all of this with powerful first-person testimony and riveting storytelling that make it a film not to be missed.

But there is something it does not do: when addressing sexual violence against children, it keeps a focus that is still too narrow. The journalists featured in the documentary say that Larry Nassar was not their target, that USA Gymnastics — as harborers of structural power abuse — was. And even though this target rightfully expands the reach of their particular investigation (especially since USAG had a substantial hand in protecting Nassar), it still falls short of honing in on an essential reality: every youth serving organization in the U.S. must be equipped to protect children from the kind of abuse Nassar inflicted.

Does your child play a sport? Does your child spend time with any youth-serving organization? Has any organization ever shared with you the safeguarding policies and procedures they’ve put in place to protect your kids from abuse? My guess is, probably not. The main reason is that there is no federal law mandating basic safeguarding policies and procedures for organizations that interact with kids. As such, those organizations are often left to figure out for themselves what kind of protections, if any, they can uphold. Unfortunately, laws (mostly focused on mandated reporting) or vague recommendations vary from state to county to sector, often leaving organizations — and the kids they serve — vulnerable to sexual violence, and parents not knowing to even look for protection.

Last year, my organization did a global evidence review of what works to prevent sexual violence and found that there are minimum requirements needed for safeguarding our kids in youth-serving environments. These include:

  • Mandatory background checks for managers, staff, and volunteers.
  • Mandatory training of managers, staff, and volunteers on a regular basis.
  • Codes of conduct (e.g., that don’t allow children to be alone with an adult at any time).
  • Immediate mandatory reporting requirements.
  • Mechanisms for reporting abuse — including anonymously (e.g., hotlines).
  • Established procedures to refer reported cases to the authorities.
  • Mandatory yearly safety assessments.
  • Safety policies (e.g., supervision, eliminating private one-on-one contact, transportation).
  • Ongoing monitoring and evaluation of safeguarding policies.
  • Safety committees that include members of the organization but also key stakeholders (e.g, youth, parents, community leaders).

If every youth-serving organization had these minimum safety requirements in place, we would see a sizeable reduction in the prevalence of sexual abuse against children and adolescents.

Sexual violence against children is still something we don’t speak about enough. Films like Athlete A help amplify the voices of survivors and those who bring perpetrators to justice in a powerful and haunting way. But like so many similar movies (like the Oscar-winning Spotlight, focused on the investigation of sexual violence against children by Catholic priests; or Filthy Rich, the docuseries about convinced sex offender Jeffrey Epstein) it misses an important mark. It never engages or informs the audience on what can be done to ensure all youth-serving organizations — whether they be as powerful as the USAG or as small as your own child’s after-school gymnastics program — protect our kids. I realize films and documentaries are not PSAs. They are made to expose, inform, and engage. But the full picture of sexual violence against children must include prevention. Not addressing it makes any story incomplete.

If you have not seen Athlete A, I encourage you to watch it. And then, I encourage you to take action. If your child — or a child you are close to — plays a sport or is involved with any youth-serving organization, reach out. Find out what each organization’s safeguarding policy is. If they don’t have one, or if they don’t meet all the minimum requirements as outlined here, consider helping them come up with one. If they are unwilling, find an organization that is.

By working together, we can ensure no more children become Athlete A.