Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 25, 2018

Heroism Defined, 156 Times

The limits of the language and perhaps of imagination cause some words to be used so often or so loosely as to diminish their meaning and impact. We speak of heroes in all our games. The four ballplayers just elected to the Hall of Fame can be called heroes, for when their bronze likenesses go up on the wall in Cooperstown they will have achieved baseball immortality. The weekend after next more than one hundred million viewers will watch the Super Bowl, and whoever is named the game’s MVP will, by fans of the winning team at least, be lauded for his heroic performance.

The concept is as old as language itself, with tales of heroism forming the body of oral epic poems in societies so ancient they predate writing. Down through the ages there are countless stories of those who are admired for their courage, or great achievements, or personal sacrifice in service of a greater good.

But while we freely use the term in writing about sports, the reality is that within the puny context of our modern athletic diversions those we ennoble with the honorific are heroes in only a limited way. Most are heroes for a game, or perhaps a season. Even the immortals can be forgotten. The honorees announced this week will join more than 300 others in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Even ardent fans of the Great Game would be hard pressed to name more than a fraction of that number.

We have been reminded of all that over the past week by an astonishing display of true heroism. In a quiet courtroom in Lansing, Michigan, in proceedings that were originally scheduled to last four days but eventually stretched to seven, 156 young women bared their souls and told their stories, overcoming years of guilt, shame, and self-loathing, to confront Larry Nassar, the long-time doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, who for years used his position as a trusted physician to systematically sexually abuse all of the women giving victim impact statements, and likely many more.

If the hangdog countenance of Nassar seems an unlikely face of pure evil, it only proves that raw malevolence can hide in plain sight. Under the guise of providing physical exams or treating injuries, Nassar assaulted young women and girls, some as young as six. Already in prison after pleading guilty to federal child pornography charges for thousands of explicit images found on his home computer, last November he pled guilty to ten state felony charges of sexually assaulting seven girls. The hearing before Judge Rosemarie Aquilina was to determine Nassar’s sentence on those convictions.

He was hailed as the best doctor in the land for treating the injuries that can befall gymnasts. But among those giving impact statements were also dancers and runners, volleyball and soccer players. Some were instantly recognizable, like Olympic gold medal winners Aly Raisman, Simone Biles, and Gabby Douglas. Far more were unknown but to their family and friends. What all had in common was victimization by a physician who used his position of authority and power to inflict profound emotional wounds on each of them. As the hearing progressed more and more women came forward, and Judge Aquilina allowed each to speak, rebuffing Nassar’s plea to end the proceedings. By the time their stories were told a pattern of serial abuse stretching over two decades had been laid bare.

“’He’s a miracle worker. He can fix anyone or anything.’ Thinking back to these words filling my naïve mind, all I can think about is how this man, someone who held of-so-many high credentials, was the monster who left me with more pain and scars than I came to his office with,” said Jade Capua. “I had a dream to go to the Olympics, and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting,” said McKayla Maroney. “What kind of doctor can tell a 13-year-old they are done growing by the size of their pubic bone?” asked Arianna Guerrero.

In addition to detailing the horror, the women spoke of how their attempts to unmask Nassar’s evil were rebuffed. Amanda Thomashow testified, “I reported it. Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure.” Jamie Dantzscher told the court, “People didn’t believe me, even people I though were my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all this up just to get attention.”

More than anything else, by standing up and speaking out, these young women showed their strength and resolve. It was Raisman, captain of the U.S. women’s gymnastics teams at the last two Olympics who looked at Nassar and said, “Let this sentence strike fear in anyone who thinks it is okay to hurt another person. Abusers, your time is up. The survivors are here, standing tall, and we are not going anywhere.”

On Wednesday, the final statement was given by 33-year-old Rachel Denhollander. By being the last to speak, she brought this awful story back to its beginning. For in 2016 it was Denhollander who read a series of investigative reports by journalists at the Indianapolis Star that exposed a pattern by officials of USA Gymnastics of covering up reports of abuse by coaches. Denhollander contacted the Star’s reporters and told them of her experience when she was a 15-year-old club gymnast. It was not abuse at the hands of a coach, but rather by the renowned physician she had been sent to for treatment of a back injury. When the Star broke the Nassar story soon thereafter, it did so based on the accounts of two women. One chose to remain anonymous at the time, so in that initial report Denhollander was Nassar’s only named accuser.

She told the court that Nassar “penetrated me, he groped me, he fondled me. And then he whispered questions about how it felt.” She described her tormentor as “the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome and caring external persona as a deliberate means to assure a steady stream of young children to assault.” Denhollander described the difficulty, years later, of trusting even the delivery room doctors during the births of her three children. Speaking to Nassar’s sentence, she asked simply, “How much is a little girl worth?”

Sentenced to from 40 to 175 years by Judge Aquilina, in addition to his federal sentence of 60 years, Larry Nassar has taken his last breath as a free man. But Nassar’s decades of abuse were enabled by those who employed him and who chose to brush aside or cover up complaints. Already several board members of USA Gymnastics have stepped down, as has the president of Michigan State. The NCAA has launched an investigation of the university, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) has called for a congressional inquiry into USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee. The accounting is not yet complete. But then as Raisman said, the 156 heroines in that Michigan courtroom aren’t going anywhere.


  1. You handled this sensitive subject well, Mike. The repercussions from this series of events will continue long past our lifetimes.

    • Thanks very much Allan, and you are right about that.


      Michael Cornelius

  2. Really nice piece. Thanks.

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