On Netflix the new documentary ‘’Athlete A’’ is a very well made and smartly constructed documentary covering the recent exposure of the longterm sexual abuse that was taking place with USA Gymnastics. The title refers to the initial witness who anonymously came forward to state on the record how she, as a gymnast, had been the victim of abuse, and it is a detailed account of how the institutionalized permissiveness of abuse in the organization was exposed.
The tale of how an official USA Gymnastics doctor was able to abuse young girls for decades, and be shielded by those who operated the Olympic gymnastics program all that time is as jarring as it is absorbing. Learning the leaders put the girls’ athletic health in a secondary position to winning is not all too surprising, but learning that their ultimate safety was also little more than a passing concern becomes disturbing. It is a cautionary tale of the highest order for parents with kids involved in any larger organization entity.
Just as compelling was the progress made by the members of the Indianapolis Star newspaper to exposing this story. What we have become exposed to is something that has fallen away in our national media circus -- hard working and intrepid journalism. If you are immersed in any fashion with dealing with the national press you quite easily can become inured to the unethical carnival show that our press corps has become. We are so accustomed to the preening before cameras and the polluting of reports with political bias that it is almost moving to be witnessing ego-free journalism.
This story emanates from an initial investigation into local abuse cases, and we are brought along as the paper built the story with leads and research. We are introduced to Steve Berta, the Investigations editor at The Star, who notes how this massive national story began from a small newsroom ‘’in the sticks’’. Then we are introduced to reporter Marisa Kwwiatkowski, who was investigating cases of abuse within the local school system, and it was from this initial story that the entire scandal gradually unfolded.
One of her sources had made mention that she should also look into USA Gymnastics and its handling of abuse cases. A lawsuit was uncovered concerning one of the gymnastic coaches. Fellow reporter Mark Alesia was able to discover this coach had been mentioned years earlier as a predator but instead of action taken he was moved off to various gyms, away from the problems. The Star dug into court records and depositions by the USAG officials and released a story on the way the outfit dealt with sex abuse complaints.
The story came out during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and even as it was a jolting expose it became only the beginning. Upon its release a number of former gymnasts came forward to give their stories of abuse at the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, the longtime medical director of the USA teams. As Alesia notes, they had three individuals claims of abuse against Nassar, being made by three former gymnasts who did not know each other. Asks Alesia to this reality; ‘’How many more could there be?’’ The answer to that question later is disturbing. Reporter Tim Evans joined in on the team looking into the swelling amount of girls and cases that were gradually coming forward.
The testimonies of these women and the stories of what they each endured is gripping. The reality of what the organization was willing to not only permit but to work at covering up is infuriating. Through the progress of this documentary the work of these reporters keeps moving to the front. That is what becomes striking; their work is what stands out, not their names and personalities.
Think of all the reporters we are familiar with who are intent on making themselves the focal point of a story. Picture the correspondents who ask questions in a fashion that seem more intent on drawing attention to them instead of getting at the heart of a story. Here we have a collection of journalists who are not charismatic, who do not look wholly comfortable being on camera, but they were doing work that begs to be told. What they have to present is work we want to consume.
It is such a striking difference to have journalists who accomplished things that make us want to listen intently, instead of brash faces who are demanding they be heard. This is what journalism is supposed to be, and it is a breed that appears to be an endangered species.