In "Start By Believing," ESPN reporters detail Nassar's abuse and the ongoing fallout | Michigan Radio
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In "Start By Believing," ESPN reporters detail Nassar's abuse and the ongoing fallout

Feb 21, 2020

With good timing and a web of connections, Larry Nassar navigated the world of elite gymnastics and hid his serial sexual abuse until his victims brought him down.

In a new book, ESPN investigative reporters John Barr and Dan Murphy detail Nassar's beginnings, demise, and the ongoing fallout from his crimes.

Barr and Murphy joined Michigan Radio Morning Edition host Doug Tribou to talk about their book "Start By Believing: Larry Nassar's Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster." 

Doug Tribou: Larry Nassar had good timing. He became an athletic trainer just as that field was catching on. He focused on gymnastics in the late 1980s during the sport’s biggest boom. And in those early years, he befriended some people who would eventually become gymnastics power players – including Kathie Klages, who would go on to be Michigan State University's head coach. Dan, tell us about some of those early connections.

Dan Murphy:  He was a University of Michigan student and he was an athletic trainer. ... In high school is when he started first getting interested in the sport. And he quickly met some folks. One is a guy named Jack Rockwell, who was a well-known trainer in the Olympic circles for the gymnastics. And [Nassar] found that as long as he was willing to show up and volunteer and be there all the time, he was able to rise through the ranks very quickly. Before he was even finished with his residency and a full-fledged doctor, he was the national medical coordinator for all of USA Gymnastics and going to Olympic events and treating the best gymnasts in the world.

DT:  Former MSU gymnastics coach Kathie Klages was convicted of lying to police in the Nassar case. You write that Klages was so excited when Nassar became Michigan State’s team doctor, she even mentioned him when she was recruiting athletes. John, you covered her trial. What does their friendship reveal about the way Nassar used his relationships with powerful people in the gymnastics world?

"As long as [Larry Nassar] was willing to show up and volunteer and be there all the time, he was able to rise through the ranks very quickly." - Dan Murphy

John Barr: Kathie Klages and Larry Nassar have a relationship that dates back to their time together at Great Lakes Gymnastics, a gym in the Lansing area. And that was in the late 1980s. When Klages was confronted with allegations in the late '90s, I think her judgment, frankly, was clouded by that personal relationship. She just refused to believe the worst about her friend.

DT: Many adults, including some parents of gymnasts that Nassar treated, said they loved and trusted him, even considered him a member of the family. But you write that others did not, including former USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny. Dan, what we're Penny's concerns?

DM: Well, Penny had some issues. I think it was a personality clash. There were several people that we spoke to from the USA Gymnastics side that had raised warning signs and had concerns about Nassar and thought that what he was doing might have been a little bit weird. But [their concerns] all got passed over for one reason or another. And there was never quite enough to put all the pieces together for those people.

DT: And part of that was his penchant for taking a lot of photographs that normally athletic trainers wouldn't take. Is that right?

JB: Yeah, that's right. We spoke with a guy named Don Rackey. He was the head athletic trainer for the men's gymnastics program and he roomed with Nassar for probably more than 100 nights at different international competitions. And he wondered to himself, "What's the women's trainer doing taking so many photos of young gymnasts?" And eventually it was Steve Penny who will put an end to that practice.

ESPN investigative reporters John Barr and Dan Murphy are the authors of "Start By Believing: Larry Nassar's Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster."

DT: Despite his concerns, Steve Penny ends up being another part of this wide-ranging fallout, Dan. He's accused of dragging his feet on the allegations against Nassar. He's currently facing criminal charges. What is the case against him?

DM: In the summer of 2015 is when things on the elite gymnastics level started to really come to a head with Larry Nassar. And there was a couple women who were overheard having a discussion about being uncomfortable with him. And word trickled up to Steve Penny as the leader of the organization.

His first reaction was to hire an outside firm and sort of gauge the damage rather than immediately try to protect [the athletes]. We learned that Steve Penny had some specific points in time when his lawyer said [to Penny], "We could come forward and share everything we've learned at this point, which were some pretty credible claims of sexual assault, but that's probably going to be negative attention for us and for Larry Nassar. And because of that, maybe we shouldn't do it."

So, Steve Penny made the decision not to publicly speak up and explain what Larry Nassar was doing. They had gone to the FBI, but the FBI wasn't doing much at that time. They decided they didn't want Larry Nassar going to some prominent gymnastics events that year, but they let him quietly retire. The fallout from that was that back at Michigan State, Larry Nassar was able to continue seeing and abusing patients for another 11 months after USA Gymnastics knew that something was wrong.

DT: Anything to add there, John?

JB: Well, Steve Penny was charged with tampering with evidence. He was indicted by a grand jury in Walker County, Texas. And those charges relate to a decision he made in late 2016 when two investigators showed up at the famed Karolyi Ranch, which was the training facility for the U.S. national team for many, many years. When they initially showed up, a USA staffer turn them away on Steve Penny's instructions. We now know from that staffer, Amy White, that Steve Penny instructed her to remove anything with Larry Nassar's name on it. She took flash drives, documents, put them in a suitcase that she had to buy at Target and she paid an extra baggage fee and sent it from Houston up to Indianapolis that summer.

"So many women took this horrible experience and have really tried to work toward a more positive outcome for sexual assault survivors." - John Barr

DT: Tokyo is set to host the 2020 Olympic Games, the first summer games since Larry Nassar's conviction. As the U.S. sends its gymnasts to their biggest stage, how would you describe the state of the sport of gymnastics in our country right now, Dan?

DM: On the field of play, which is what they call it in gymnastics, it's as good as it's ever been. Simone Biles is arguably the best gymnast the U.S. has ever produced and the world has ever seen. And they're very much favored to win gold. Away from the mat it's very much in limbo. It's in flux and in disarray. Right now, [USAG is] in the middle of a bankruptcy proceeding that they're hoping [will let them] pay off what's now more than 500 women who are suing because of the Larry Nassar case. And they want to try to settle those. But they still have a long way to go to regain the trust of the public and more importantly, the athletes who they're supposed to be helping.

DT: In the end, Nassar's ultimate undoing happened when more and more of his victims came forward. Many of our listeners have heard them on Michigan Radio and on our podcast Believed. John, what stands out to you about that final breakthrough when the women eventually brought down Nassar?

JB: Well, what stands out to me is how so many women used it as a turning point in their own lives. You have a number of women in the great state of Michigan who are now working on behalf of sexual assault survivors and they bring to the table their own experience. And to me, that's what's most remarkable, is how so many women took this horrible experience and have really tried to work toward a more positive outcome for sexual assault survivors and, frankly, future generations of young athletes.

DT: Dan, why do you think the stories these women and girls shared were finally able to break through?

DM: Really it's their perseverance and their bravery, and standing up and over and over again, fighting this battle on a daily basis. They had help from attorneys, advocates, and some prosecutors as well, but without their concerted effort to make sure that they were heard, none of this would have happened.

Editor's note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.