USA Gymnastics is working to repair its seriously damaged reputation in the wake of the longstanding abuse scandal that centered on disgraced former physician, Larry Nassar. While the case — and the scandal — had fallen out of the headlines in recent months, a new documentary may change that, and USA Gymnastics needs to be prepared with a response to influence the narrative that will be created by the film.
In reporting about the documentary, one journalist cited a seemingly incongruous quote from one of the athletes allegedly abused by Nassar, as “one of the most powerful lines” in what was, to them, a “damning documentary.” In the film, athlete Jamie Dantzscher says, of Nassar, “(he was) the only nice adult among the team staff…”
In a clearly painful interview moment, Dantzcher added: “I hate this… but I would actually look forward to treatment, because Larry was the only nice adult I could remember being a part of the USA Gymnastics staff… the only nice adult there.”
The statement is particularly telling — and troubling — for USA Gymnastics’ perilous PR position, because the organization is fighting to push a narrative claiming the issues that allowed Nassar to do what he did for so long to so many athletes were not the result of widespread or institutional issues within the organization. This quote, though, pushes back against any defense offered along those lines.
That, in part, appears to be the point of the documentary, directed by Bonni Cohen and John Shenk. The film clearly intends to point a wide-angle lens at the entire organization, characterizing the issues and much more deep than the abhorrent actions of one trusted physician. The documentary presents a viewpoint which indicates a deeper toxicity, bolstering this perspective with evidence including the indictment of former president Steve Penny on charges of evidence tampering.
Fans of USA Gymnastics — and they are legion, because of the phenomenal performances of athletes through the generations — will find a lot of narrative points in this film tough to digest. From the training regimens, to the expectations, to the way issues surrounding Nassar’s abuse of athletes were handled. In addition to the physical abuse by the doctor, there are allegations of “pervasive psychological abuse” by coaches in a training facility where parents were not allowed.
Questions about who knew about the ongoing abuse, when, and how remain unanswered. But speculation along these lines is one of the biggest hurdles USA Gymnastics faces in trying to fix its reputation in the minds and hearts of fans. Claims, such as competitors being punished or excluded for making allegations against Nassar, may be difficult to effectively dispute in an atmosphere made up of people who believe officials may have known but did not care.
Phrases like “turning a blind eye” and “cover up” abound in the negative narratives surrounding the organization. These messages will only be amplified by this documentary.