Sexual abuse among athletes has gained significant media attention within the past year, especially after the January 2018 sentencing of the infamous Dr. Lawrence Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor who was accused of sexually abusing more than 300 women and girls throughout his career.
Following Nassar’s hearing, during which more than 150 victims spoke out about their experiences with the physician, federal courts were hit with a wave of class action lawsuits filed by athletes alleging sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches and doctors, with the most recent case filed just two weeks ago.
The lawsuits paint a disturbing picture of the rampant culture of sexual misconduct allegedly fostered by the sports community. According to the cases, promising young athletes—fueled by dreams of medals and success—are left with no choice but to trust and depend on coaches, gym leaders, doctors and other adults who maintain a concerning level of control over their lives and futures.
As reported in a Washington Post review, more than 290 Olympic coaches and officials have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1982:
The figure spans parts of 15 sports and amounts to an average of eight adults connected to an Olympic organization accused of sexual misconduct every year — or about one every six weeks — for more than 36 years.”
There’s no doubt that sexual abuse is a serious problem in the sports community, especially among Olympic athletes. But could class actions be part of the solution? Attorneys seem to think so, as evidenced by the recent wave of lawsuits. Let’s explore why.
Why class action lawsuits?
One Person Speaks for Many
The defining feature of class action lawsuits is that they provide an avenue for one or a few individuals to fight on behalf of many.
Sexual abuse cases are sensitive in nature, meaning victims are often unwilling or unable to speak up for themselves. Many affected individuals are children, many are afraid of the consequences they could suffer for speaking up (such as retaliation by their peers or coaches that could ultimately shatter their careers), and many more may not even realize they’re being abused.
One lawsuit filed against an acclaimed volleyball coach describes the “environment of dependency and fear” the man allegedly built around his team in order to keep them silent:
By repeatedly telling them that they needed to follow his directives ‘blindly’ in order to succeed, combined with threats of blackballing them from the sport and physical intimidation, Butler could mold and pressure each girl to his own ends without fear they would reveal what he was doing.”
Many victims, unfortunately, are in the same situation. That’s one of the benefits of class action lawsuits.
By allowing the brave few to stand up on behalf of all victims, class action lawsuits could provide justice even to those who remain silent.
Powerful Organizations Can Be Held Accountable
Another feature of class action lawsuits is that they level the playing field. Where an individual may not have the resources necessary to challenge a powerful institution in court, class actions provide an avenue for an army of victims to stand up to a goliath organization and demand accountability.
Specifically, the lawsuits filed this year are chastising institutions and sports organizations for allowing abuse to occur under their supervision, failing to put effective policies in place to prevent abuse, failing to report suspicions or complaints of abuse to authorities, and even failing to be transparent with athletes’ parents about coaches and other employees who have been accused of abuse in the past.
Here's what one lawsuit filed this past August stated:
Through this lawsuit, Plaintiffs shine a light on the USOC, USAT, and SafeSport and the cesspool of sex crimes that they facilitate, condone, and try to conceal. Plaintiffs, on behalf of themselves and the Class, declare that enough is enough, that no other athletes should have to endure the ‘disgusting and unnecessary’ exploitation, abuse, forced labor and services, and trafficking they have experienced at the hands of the Team USA rapists and traffickers who stood at the apex—and served as the gatekeepers—of USAT and the USOC.”
That’s USA Taekwondo (USAT) and the United States Olympic Committee (OSOC). Other groups named in lawsuits include:
GLV, Inc. (doing business as Sports Performance Volleyball Club); USA Gymnastics; USA Diving, Inc.; Indiana Diving Association of USA Diving, Inc.; Indiana Diving Academy, Inc. (which does business as Ripfest); The Ohio State University; and The Ohio State University Diving Club.
These lawsuits are demanding that organizations no longer turn a blind eye to the culture of abuse they’ve allegedly fostered. Instead, the cases are seeking to require that everyone involved in athletes’ careers, including the organizations in which they participate, be held accountable for the individuals’ protection.
Abuse Victims Can Receive Compensation for Their Suffering
Most of the class actions filed over alleged sexual abuse are seeking damages for proposed class members. This means victims can be repaid for some of the physical and emotional damage they’ve endured, such as:
“…pain and suffering, pain of mind and body, shock, emotional distress, physical manifestations of emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, disgrace, fright, grief, humiliation, loss of enjoyment of life, post-traumatic stress disorder resulting in physically manifested injuries including anxiety, depressions, sleep disorders, nightmares, psychological injuries, and physical injuries.”
To name a few.
But just how much money can these lawsuits seek in reparation? For these cases, it’s a bit too early to tell.
Future Incidents Can Be Prevented
In addition to, and perhaps even more impactful than, seeking monetary damages, class action lawsuits can also seek injunctive relief. That means if the cases are successful, not only will the defendants be paying for past behavior, they will be required to take certain steps to help ensure future incidents are prevented as well.
One lawsuit seeks to require the USOC and USAT to “put in place (and fund) supervision and compliance protocols that actually prevent, uncover, and stop the sexual abuse, exploitation, and trafficking of Team USA’s athletes.”
Instead of just trying to compensate people for damage that’s already been done, these lawsuits are taking a proactive approach to ending sexual abuse within the sports community.
Easier said than done. But attorneys seem to think class actions could give victims some hope for a better future.
The beginning of a solution
There’s still a long road ahead when it comes to addressing sexual abuse in sports. The cases filed this year may take years to reach resolution, and there’s no telling how they will end up. But if anything, they’re at least a step in the right direction, even if just to shed more light on the issue.
The Larry Nassar case began with just one lawsuit filed in Georgia. The Indianapolis Star picked up the story, conducted an investigation, exposed serious issues within powerful organizations, and inspired more victims to come forward – leading to more lawsuits, more media attention, and eventually justice.
This snowball effect of media attention and lawsuits resulted in some significant changes:
A new law was passed – known as the Safe Sport Act – that aims to protect athletes from sexual abuse; The president of Michigan State University resigned over her handling of the Nassar case; USA Gymnastics training center Karolyi Ranch, where numerous gymnasts say they were abused, was closed;The entire USA Gymnastics board of directors resigned in response to USOC pressure; Two USA Swimming directors resigned amid allegations that they allowed sexual abuse to occur; OSOC CEO Scott Blackmun resigned, though his resignation was reportedly due to health issues; and A Harvard University diving coach resigned after allegations in a recent lawsuit caused him to be placed on leave.
So, as for our original question—can class action lawsuits bring justice to victims of sexual abuse—the answer remains yet to be seen. But, as Olympic medalist Aly Raisman said toward the end of her statement at the Nassar hearing:
“Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.”
Below are the full complaints for the lawsuits filed this year:
Mullen v. GLV, Inc. et al.
Gilbert et al. v. United States Olympic Committee
Frederick v. United States Olympic Committee et al.
Doe 1 et al. v. The Ohio State University
Doe 1 v. The Ohio State University
Pryor v. USA Diving, Inc. et al.
Stevens v. USA Diving, Inc. et al.