The ‘Story of the Year’ at the Collision of Sports and Politics: The Woman Who Defeated a Cartel

The ‘Story of the Year’ at the Collision of Sports and Politics: The Woman Who Defeated a Cartel

The ‘Story of the Year’ at the Collision of Sports and Politics: The Woman Who Defeated a Cartel

Rachael Denhollander showed that the power of her truth was stronger than USA Gymnastics.


This was a combustible year at the intersection of sports and politics. There was the good: Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid picking up the protest mantle from the still-colluded-against Colin Kaepernick and bringing politics onto the field and into the locker room, using both his voice and his cleats; Serena Williams on center court at the US Open standing up against sexism; the cheerleaders in football and dancers in basketball who came forward about their treatment behind the scenes, demanding justice; LeBron James taking Fox News’ White Nationalist Laura Ingraham “shut up and dribble” blather and repurposing it as the name of his docu-series about sports and politics; and the ascendance just this month of transgender boxer Patricio Manuel. Hell, there were the Philadelphia Eagles way back in January showing us that protest, politics, and play could in fact produce a legendary Super Bowl performance.

There was also the bad and ugly: the continued collusion by NFL against Kaepernick; the World Wrestling Entertainment and their blood-deal with Saudi Arabia, taking in millions to whitewash a murderous regime and then subtly mocking journalist Jamal Khashoggi on their flagship show RAW; more cases of violence against women in the NFL that the ownership country club instinctively tries to minimize or cover up, and more stadium scams—like the one Dan Snyder is currently attempting to engineer in DC—aimed at picking the bones of what’s left of public money to line the pockets of billionaires.

But there is one story that stands above all the rest, and it would be wrong to classify it as something as trite as “good,” “bad,” or “ugly.” That story: the women and the gymnasts who came forward and spoke out against Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar—and who turned USA gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee upside down. These survivors showed us how to speak our truth, how to fight, and how to win. It is a story that was powerful, transformative, and a bold reminder that in the bitter age of Brett Kavanaugh, the wealthy and powerful don’t always get away with it; that we are not in fact ruled by a collection of Rollo Tomasis. From the organization of the case, to the enraging, devastating, and heartbreaking testimonies, to the news of Nassar’s 40-to-125-year sentence, this story was the sort of victory that makes it possible, in a year like 2018, to find a moment’s peace and a sliver of hope.

The person at the front of this struggle was gymnast turned attorney Rachael Denhollander. Denhollander was sexually assaulted by Nassar when she was 15 and came forward fifteen years later and told her truth. Then the dam broke as hundreds of people bravely exposed Nassar’s many crimes. Denhollander read her statement to Larry Nassar in court last February, before his sentencing. Fittingly, as the first person to come forward, she was the last survivor to address him.

Months later, if you read Denhollander’s statement, you can still feel and even hear your heartbeat as you take in her words. In one section, she said, “I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, [USA Gymnastics] was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches…creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization, up the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught.… [Michigan State University] did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014.… Victims were silenced, intimidated, repeatedly told it was medical treatment and even forced to go back for continued abuse.” It is for bravery such as this that Sports Illustrated named Denhollander “the inspiration of the year,” writing:

By coming forward Denhollander helped expose Nassar as a serial abuser of hundreds of young women; he will spend the rest of his life in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault of minors. After Denhollander’s moving speech at his sentencing hearing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina called her “the bravest person I have ever had in my courtroom.”

Part of that bravery flowed from the way in which the case held to account those who enable and protect and reward criminals like Nassar. As three-time gold medalist, civil-rights lawyer, and CEO of Champion Women Nancy Hogshead-Makar said to me, “The #1 sports story of the year was finding out that the USOC’s official policy from the board was to ignore victims of sexual abuse. When Olympic champion gymnasts came forward disclosing that their official team doctor was sexually abusing them, [former chief executive of the USOC] Scott Blackmun did what he always did when athletes reached out; he ignored them, telling [former president of USA Gymnastics] Steve Penny to handle it, not his organization. While other athletes had been complaining to the USOC over the years, it took over 400 survivors from a single abuser to reveal just how badly the USOC failed to protect athletes from those with power over them.”

What Denhollander did was nothing less than take on USA Gymnastics and the USOC. Through the power of her truth, she defeated a cartel. There is nothing more difficult in sports, not to mention society. The cartels run sports—whether the NCAA, FIFA, or the IOC. These cartels thrive on secrecy. Denhollander took one down because she dared shine light. In a house of lies, she told the truth and shamed the devil.

In the process, millions of riveted observers, including countless survivors of sexual assault—were able to close their eyes, have a moment’s peace, and breathe. It was catharsis in a year defined by not just misogyny and violence but the silencing of survivors and resistors: all hallmarks of the Trump era.

Let it be a lesson to all the cartels and the powerful that control their levers, cartels that seem similarly entrenched, protected and above any semblance of justice: You are not as safe as it seems.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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