The exposure of the extent of sexual abuse by sports doctor Lawrence Nassar, who worked for the U.S.A. Gymnastics team, the United States Olympic Committee, Michigan State University, Karolyi ranch and other sports training centers, has drawn international attention and revulsion. In January more than 150 girls and young women testified at his trial on the sexual abuse they had suffered at Nassar’s hands. He pled guilty to seven counts of sexual assault.
Nassar was supposed to care for these women athletes, many of them teenagers or younger, including gymnasts, runners, divers and swimmers, when they were injured and in pain. Instead, he used his position to sexually molest them.
There had been accusations of sexual improprieties against Nassar going back more than 20 years, but they were not treated seriously by the authorities, from local police to the FBI, from U.S.A. Gymnastics to Michigan State.
That Nassar’s victims finally got a hearing and he was charged and convicted for his crimes was an advance for women and working people, a result of the recent outcry against such abuse. But the way the trial was led and the sentencing by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina was a blow against the rights of working people.
According to the Code of Judicial Conduct that is supposed to guide the work of state judges, every person should be treated fairly, with courtesy and respect. This didn’t happen here.
The capitalist criminal “justice” system is supposed to guarantee a “fair trial,” but workers know this rarely works for them. But it’s in our interests to fight for our rights and speak out whenever they are abridged — otherwise the rulers can set precedents that will be used with great force against the workers’ movement.
After Nassar had pled guilty to seven counts of sexual misconduct, Aquilina gave the floor to every woman who wished to speak about her experiences at his hands, whether they were involved in the case or not, more than 150.
“I just signed your death warrant,” the judge told Nassar, handing down a 40- to 175-year sentence. This was on top of the 60-year sentence he had gotten on child pornography charges in December.
While judges can say what they think during sentencing after the guilty verdict, Aquilina’s comments encouraged violence against him. “Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment,” she said. “If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls — these young women in their childhood — I would allow someone or many people to do to him what he did to others.”
As the judge, not the prosecutor, Aquilina was supposed to be neutral, impartial, assuring the defendants’ constitutional rights. Instead, she showed hostility and anger toward Nassar. She mocked a letter he sent her, throwing it away in front of him. She acted like he had no rights.
The Washington Post, New York Times and others publications ran articles lauding Judge Aquilina and her derision of the defendant. In the name of speaking for women, the propertied families that own the media were pleased to toss workers’ rights out the window.
When we see the rights of any defendant in the capitalist “justice” system attacked, no matter how heinous the crime committed, it is in the interests of the working class to jealously guard rights won in blood. Sentences of some 200 years, like that given to Nassar, are not in our interest.
The “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” atmosphere around Nassar was also on display at his third trial in Michigan, where he was sentenced to an additional 40 to 125 years for sexual abuse at the Twistars Gymnastics Club.
In the wake of the Nassar sex-abuse revelations, many of the officials and directors of the schools and training centers he worked at — who certainly knew about what he had been doing and did nothing — have resigned. This includes the board of directors of U.S.A. Gymnastics and the Michigan State president and athletic director. The well-known Karolyi training center has closed and additional investigations are underway.
“The victims wouldn’t be here had adults and authorities done what they should have done 20 years ago,” said Rachael Denhollander, who accused Nassar in 2016 of sexually abusing her when she was 15 years old.
Liriel Higa, a gymnast on the U.S. National Team from 1994 to 1998, wrote an opinion piece in the Times Jan. 23 titled “U.S.A. Gymnastics Still Values Medals More Than Girls.” She said, “A 2016 IndyStar investigation revealed that over 20 years, at least 368 gymnasts had claimed some form of sexual abuse by their coaches, gym owners, or other adults — almost certainly a vast undercount of victims.”
“Most important, if most challenging: Fix the culture that allowed the abuse to flourish,” Higa wrote. “It means telling coaches that physical and emotional abuse of any gymnast is not O.K.”
But the culture can’t be “fixed.” It’s an integral product of the immoral dog-eat-dog capitalist system, which breeds competition and abuse in the race for profits. Even some relatives kept quiet about what they knew was going on so as not to interfere with their child’s potential career.
Aly Raisman, the Olympic team captain in 2012 and 2016 and an Olympics gold medalist, who testified about own abuse, said of the system, “Their biggest priority from the beginning and still today is their reputation, the medals they win and the money they make off us.”
The culture of “medals” and “money” can only be gotten rid of by fundamentally changing society from top to bottom — by the working class taking political power and carrying through a socialist revolution.
Sexual harassment and abuse will continue as long as women’s oppression is a pillar of capitalism. But women and the workers’ movement can expose these injustices and fight against them, like the women who stood up and told the truth about Nassar. At the same time, we have to fight to defend the democratic rights we need.