DETROIT – This isn’t Penn State. It’s worse. At least in scope and number. And while there is no evidence of a top-down cover-up at Michigan State regarding its relationship with predatory doctor, Larry Nassar, there is absolute gross negligence and willful ignorance.
As in: I don’t want to know. Or: You don’t know what you’re talking about, little girl.
And there’s the problem right there … little girl.
Had this tragic and despicable story centered on little boys? Boys who were assaulted by, let’s say, a football coach? The NCAA would’ve stepped in sooner. So, too, would have state representatives and student governments and professor councils and, frankly, us, the media.
We wouldn’t have needed live in-court testimony from 156 victims to hear calls for an attorney general investigation. Or calls for the dismissal of MSU president Lou Anna Simon. Or pleas for the university to stop being tone deaf, which it has been, and continues to be to a staggering degree.
We wouldn’t have needed to hear – to actually hear with our own ears – the cracked and wounded voices of those who were violated by Nassar to truly begin to question why the sick doctor was allowed to sexually assault so many for so long.
If this story had been about boys, the action would’ve come sooner. Much sooner. As it did with Penn State.
And that’s a shame, yet hardly surprising. Because the truth is boys matter more than girls in this society. And if you don’t think that’s true, then ask yourself why satellite trucks haven’t encamped in East Lansing for the last 18 months, when the Indy Star originally broke the story.
Or, ask yourself this: Would university-sponsored investigators tell a boy after he’d been fondled by a doctor that he misunderstood the procedure? In the way that MSU Title IX investigators told one of Nassar’s victims in 2014?
She missed the “nuance” of the procedure, they claimed. Never mind that they referred to sexual assault as a “procedure.”
Those investigators – doctors appointed by MSU who had ties to Nassar – may have been inclined to find cover for their colleague. But, for argument’s sake, let’s assume they didn’t. Let’s assume they simply dismissed the patient’s complaint as a matter of her medical ignorance.
Again, place a boy in that equation and it’s easy to imagine the suspicion such a complaint would’ve caused. Then think about the difference, and about the innocence we ascribe to boys that we so often withhold from girls. Innocence we make them prove.
Remember Ray Rice? The former NFL running back who hit his wife?
His assault was a minor story until video was released. That video forced the NFL and, by extension, the rest of us, to confront an ugly truth in a way we didn’t couldn’t – or wouldn’t see.
Last week’s testimony from a courthouse in Ingham County had the same effect. The courage and pain on display from Nassar’s victims finally gave this story the kind of depth – and breadth – it always deserved.
It’s true that bearing witness to actual human emotion is more powerful than reading about it or hearing it second-hand in an office. And yet, the Penn State tragedy grabbed the attention of the nation immediately. We didn’t need to see Jerry Sandusky’s victims cry.
Man-on-boy sexual assault unsettles in a way that man-on-girl sexual assault does not. It’s that simple, really. And that has to change.
It’s why as recently as Tuesday an MSU regent, Joel Ferguson, described Nassar’s decades-long rampage so casually on a Lansing radio show.
“Just this Nassar thing,” is how Ferguson referenced it, when talking about why he still supports Simon.
He then went on to talk about all the other important things a president does. Like raise money for the men’s basketball team, and help fund shiny new additions to arenas.
At this point, it’s impossible to know how many regents and influential MSU donors and other top brass at the school share Ferguson’s view. In a way, though, it’s irrelevant. They’ve had their opportunity to speak. And blown it.
Either by silence or by failing to capture the gravity of what has happened. To lay all the blame at MSU’s doorstep, however, misses the point.
The incompetence and mishandling that helped propel this tragedy is a symptom of a society that still doesn’t believe little girls. Or women in general.
Sexism and misogyny are as American as the Constitution. In fact, you can find remnants of both in that very document.
I’m guilty of that tradition, too. Only a few times have I written about this story, and even then it was in passing, mentioned as a back-burner issue while I focused on the sexual assault complaints surrounding a handful of MSU football players.
I kept waiting for news of a cover-up. Or of some deeper, more sinister conspiracy to reveal itself. Meanwhile: football. Revenue-generating sports. Masculinity.
For years, the system believed a single doctor over the words of dozens of abused girls, and it wasn’t until they confronted us in a courtroom that we finally began to truly grapple with the consequences.
So, yes, Simon has stepped down, and some regents could feel the heat at the ballot box, and the state’s investigative arm may start pulling back the curtains and figure out why this played out for so long.
And, the doctor whose twisted, self-absorbed mission brought all this pain just got 40 to 175 years – on top of the 60 he was already serving for child pornography. We are moving forward, and that’s important.
But, important, also to remember why we keep ending up in the same place.
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