I’m not a parent. But I was once a gymnast. Now I teach at a medical school. As far as my own injuries, I consider myself lucky; I can walk through airport security without setting off any metal detectors. But I certainly have had my fair share of visits to the emergency department, the orthopedist, the chiropractor, and the physical therapist – as an adult and as a child, at times without a parent present.
We heard so many powerful statements from young women at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearings. As I read and listened to these women confront their abuser, I was empowered by statements like those of Kyle Stevens, who said: “…little girls don’t stay little forever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
But I wondered if parents of male athletes were paying as much attention to the Nassar story as were the parents of young girls. Now that the first male gymnast has come forward to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse perhaps they will.
As a health educator-turned-bioethicist who studies physician sexual abuse of patients, I have some practical advice for parents.
First, if your child is at a competitive level, talk to him about injuries now – before they happen. Tell him how important it is that he is honest with you about his injuries. Emphasize that his health is more important than anything else. Injuries will occur at inconvenient times – after plane tickets have been purchased for an away competition, after tens of thousands of dollars of been spent on training, before the offer of a college scholarship is finalized. Let him know that you will never be angry with him, that he will never be in trouble for being hurt. Your child has worked tirelessly. She is a perfectionist. She is an overachiever. She is a risk taker. She is a badass. She may not have been alive when Kerri Strug hobbled down the vault runway on an injured ankle at the 1996 Olympics, but she’s seen the video. She knows how much you have sacrificed – whether or not you have ever pointed this out. And whether it’s because she doesn’t want to disappoint you or her coaches, or because she doesn’t want to miss an opportunity, voices in her head are telling her to say that it doesn’t really hurt that much. National team members speaking out against Nassar mentioned instances where they specially asked to receive treatment in private, because they were worried that if their coaches or parents knew, they wouldn’t be allowed to compete. In order to truly respect his victims and prevent future abuses, we cannot ignore that as a physician, Nassar offered much that these young athletes needed – relief from physical pain, emotional support in an extremely stressful environment, and an ally when they were being pushed to train or compete while injured. Make sure your child knows that you are her ally.
Second, accept but that injuries are inevitable. Prepare to decide whether or not your child will be allowed to train and/or compete when injured. You will make these decisions in consultation with coaches and physicians or athletic trainers, but ultimately you as a parent are responsible for your child’s safety and welfare. Nassar himself said this during a 2013 podcast.
Third, there is a simple, practical way to prevent abuse by a physician or trainer. Nassar initially denied any misconduct, and then changed his story to claim that vaginal penetration was “standard treatment.” If your child requires ongoing treatment for an injury, and especially if you will not be present for every session, ask the treating physician or trainer, in front of your child, to describe in detail what that treatment will involve. Then, say to the provider, in front of your child: “If you decide to do something different, or someone else will be involved in treating my child, please tell me first.” And to your child, in front of the provider, say: “If the treatment you are receiving seems different from what’s being discussed here, ask to stop immediately and tell me.”
This suggestion may be perceived as putting responsibility for preventing abuse on vulnerable victims. But there’s no harm in educating all patients about what to expect at the doctor’s office. This improves the patient experience. Institutions –USA Gymnastics, the International Olympic Committee, and Michigan State University – and administrators and coaches working at those institutions are also to blame for ignoring complaints about Nassar and perpetuating the cultures that allowed him to abuse so many young athletes for so long. The health care system must also take greater action to prevent physician misconduct. But institutions are slow to change, and bad apples are difficult to screen out. Talking to your kids more can’t hurt.
Emily E. Anderson, PhD, MPH, is associate professor of bioethics at Stritch School of Medicine, Loyola University Chicago and a Public Voices Fellow at the OpEd Project.