The details of the widespread, systemic sexual abuse physician Larry Nassar inflicted on hundreds of athletes is a story that finally dominated headlines and broadcast television news during his sentencing on Wednesday. Nassar, who was renowned for his position as official team doctor for USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee, was sentenced to 40 to 175 years as part of a plea deal in which he admitted to 10 sexual assaults. This is in addition to the 60-year federal sentence he received last December for child pornography charges.
More than 150 victims, including several Olympic gold medalists, testified in a Michigan courtroom over seven days. Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis cited the role of investigative journalists and the Indianapolis Star’s 2016 report into USA Gymnastics, “Out of Balance,” in her closing remarks. As a result, the Indianapolis Star’s report received a new wave of praise and attention, as well as a New York Times profile with its authors.
Prosecutor in Larry Nassar case: “We, as a society, need investigative journalists more than ever.”
Without reporters and the first victim to speak out publicly, “he would still be practicing medicine – treating athletes and abusing kids,” she said. pic.twitter.com/Cqcxip6gmd
— NBC News (@NBCNews) January 24, 2018
But another paper has been investigating USA Gymnastics for over a decade. The Orange County Register wasn’t mentioned by Povilaitis, but veteran staff writer Scott Reid has been reporting on the “Darwinian system” within USA Gymnastics for more than 13 years.
His two major investigations—in 2004 and 2011—on abuse within the sport were overshadowed, first by news about doping by several professional athletes and later by revelations about Jerry Sandusky—the Penn State assistant football coach who was found guilty of molesting several young boys. Reid wonders what would have happened if his 2004 investigation into physical abuse of gymnasts had received more attention. “If people had really started to take a hard look, that was 13 years ago, then I think a lot of this would have been avoided.”
Reid’s interest in gymnastics started when he was working at The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and covering the University of Georgia’s popular and top-rated gymnastics program. “They had these amazing teams and [an] amazing coach,” he tells CJR.
The coach told Reid she recruited a lot of high-profile kids who had been in the national team program. “They were all broken,” Reid recalls. “It became clear it was her job to put these kids back together. They had substance issues, drinking problems, eating disorders, depression, several kids were suicidal and acted out in different ways. That kind of put the [seed] in my head.”
In 1996, Reid joined the Register as the paper’s sports enterprise and investigative reporter. In early 2000, Reid heard about concussions while covering the National Hockey League and observed major injuries in professional football. They brought back memories of the student gymnasts. “It struck me the impact these young women were doing was at the same level,” Reid says. “I think these guys from the University of Tennessee said, ‘Imagine standing on a basketball hoop and then jumping off it repeatedly onto an 8-foot foam mat.’”
Covering the Olympics trials in Anaheim and the 37th World Artistics Gymnastics Championships also gave Reid a chance to see a few injuries of US gymnasts up close. In the spring of 2004, he started methodically tracking down a list of former junior and senior national team members from 1982 to 2004.
In December 2004, the Register published Reid’s two-part, 5700-word feature into how the sport’s culture of training and overwork often led to injury and surgeries at a rate similar to professional football players; 93 percent of gymnasts, he noted, suffered broken bones or sustain injuries that require surgery. It also detailed how a widespread obsession with weight and diet often lead to eating disorders among members of the junior and senior national teams.
Nobody listened to these women. In some cases, it’s been decades. Sometimes you’re really the first person who’s willing to hear them out.
They included interviews with more than 100 women, one of whom told Reid she broke her arm when she was 15, her foot when she was 16, and had her hip replaced at 21. He was struck by a darker undercurrent in their stories of all their injuries. “Just the psychological abuse,” he says. “Kids implying they had been kind of roughed up. Not to the point that Nassar did, but way over the line.”
After that story ran, Reid started getting emails from an anonymous source urging him to look into 1984 Olympic coach Don Peters and his relationship with gymnast Doe Yamashiro. Reid eventually figured out who his source was—the daughter of Linda McNamara, Peters’s assistant at his gym. Linda McNamara connected Reid to Yamashiro. Peters ran a gymnastics facility called SCATS in Orange County, which Reid says was like an “Olympic factory,” since multiple members of the 1984 team had trained with him there. “We found that he had sex with three teenage gymnasts,” Reid tells CJR. “Just really vile stuff.”
Reid’s 2011 two–part investigation into USA Gymnastics also included reporting on Doug Boger, a US national team coach in trampoline gymnastics who had abused a series of young girls at a gym in Pasadena, CA in the 1970s and 1980s.
The report found Boger was named USA Gymnastics Coach of the Year in 2009, and was a national team coach at the 2009 World Championships even though he was under investigation. “We found that even though he was banned, he was coaching at a friend’s gym in Colorado Springs, just a short car ride over from USOC headquarters,” Reid says.
That investigation led to Peters resigning, Boger getting fired, and a series of follow-up stories. Outlets like ESPN noticed and USA Gymnastics adopted new rules designed to prevent banned coaches like Peters from remaining in the sport. “But just as it was getting legs, the [Jerry] Sandusky thing broke,” Reid says. He recalls how victims of Peters and Boger felt like their cases were perceived as either not a big deal or not as much as a surprise compared to Sandusky’s male victims. “What Boger did to those girls is as horrific as anything I’ve ever seen. And I was frustrated because I think if it had gotten better play then, we might have been talking about Nassar then instead of six years later.”
“The Sandusky thing was like a giant tidal wave that just crashed over this Peters story and it was just kind of forgotten,” he later added.
In addition to reporting on LA’s Olympic bid and the NFL’s relocation to LA, Reid has also led investigations into the International Olympic Committee, the US Department of Education, the California Legislature, and incidents of abuse by USA Swimming coaches. “I think in terms of scandals, [USA Swimming is] on par with USA Gymnastics,” he says. “Just the neglect and the culture that created these abusive coaches. There’s not a Nassar-figure we’ve found so far, but I think eventually it points to the [US Olympic Committee].”
Reid knows sources have spoken to him because of his reputation, the breadth of work he’s published, and word-of-mouth from other survivors. “When I approach people now, I send them my stories and show them I know what I’m talking about,” he says. “It’s a headline to us but it’s a person’s life. It’s also important to tell these stories because I tell these women all the time that they’re saving some kid’s life by coming forward. And I firmly believe that. That’s why you do this. You’re making a difference.”
In the recent case of Marcia Frederick, Reid was tipped off by another Olympian. Reid initially spoke to Frederick on the phone, but the former USA Gymnastics world champion said if she was going to tell Reid her story, they had to meet in person. “I went back to Massachusetts, spent a day with her, and got her trust,” he says. “She wanted to look me in the face.”
His interview process is pretty simple. “You ask a couple of questions and just get out of the way,” Reid says. “You’d be surprised how many times you interview somebody and these women will have 20 minute answers. Nobody listened to these women. In some cases, it’s been decades. Sometimes you’re really the first person who’s willing to hear them out.”
Reid sees the focus on Nassar as important, but a symptom of a much larger problem. He says it’s important that journalists don’t portray or view Nassar as a kind of Sandusky–like “lone-wolf monster”; the focus should be on the larger Darwinian attitude towards the athletes that often causes them to overtrain in highly vulnerable conditions. He recalls talking to USA Gymnastics national team coach Marta Karolyi at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and her nonchalant attitude about Simone Biles’ performance: “‘The strength of our program is we have so many girls, and so if someone can’t make it or breaks down, we just put another one in.’”@karenkho.