Athlete A: the vital Netflix documentary we all need to sit up and pay attention to

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The fallout from the Larry Nassar scandal sent shockwaves through the gymnastics world. And, as Athlete A’s release shows, the conversation is far from over. 

Updated on 24 June: Larry Nassar – the USA Gymnastics team doctor who abused hundreds of young women – is the subject of the critically-acclaimed Athlete A, a new documentary out on Netflix this week.

Throughout the film, directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk ask two key questions: why was Nassar able to abuse these women for more than two decades? And did USA Gymnastics (USAG) cover it up?

“Ultimately, it’s a story about people who were taken advantage of by an organisation that lost sight of its responsibility,” Shenk tells BBC Sport.

“The Olympics is a big event in the United States. But, over the years, it became very much about the marketing of the athletes. Unfortunately, many of the organisations, including USA Gymnastics, did not have policies in place to protect the, often very young, athletes.”

Warning: this article contains details of a sexual assault case that some readers may find distressing.

Once upon a time, he was a world-renowned sports physician treating America’s foremost Olympic women gymnasts. In 2018, though, Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison, after over 150 women and girls gave powerful impact statements accusing him of sexual abuse.

These women, of course, were not the only ones to have been targeted by Nassar. And, despite common misconceptions, they had not been silent up until this point. Indeed, over the course of 20 years, Nassar’s victims told their parents, their coaches, the Michigan State University police, Meridian Township police, and USA Gymnastics (USAG) what he was doing to them. They recalled how they would go to Nassar in pain with various injuries, only for him to abuse them with his “special treatment”. They were interviewed, reports were written up, charges recommended.

Nassar, though, was able to continue his work as an osteopathic physician for the USAG team and Michigan State University (both institutions have been accused of enabling Nassar’s abuse). He continued to deceive parents, coaches, athletes, and law enforcement. He continued to abuse women and minors: some hundreds of times, others once or twice. 

Larry Nassar (accused of sexually assaulting more than 150 girls and young women while he was a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University) is led from the courtroom after being sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham to 40 to 125 years in prison for three counts of criminal sexual assault in Eaton County Circuit Court on 5 Feb 2018 in Charlotte, Michigan.
Larry Nassar (accused of sexually assaulting more than 150 girls and young women while he was a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University) is led from the courtroom after being sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham to 40 to 125 years in prison for three counts of criminal sexual assault in Eaton County Circuit Court on 5 Feb 2018 in Charlotte, Michigan.

What changed, then? What finally brought Nassar’s campaign of sexual abuse and assault to an end?

Well, as the chief prosecutor in the Nassar case, Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis, made abundantly clear at Nassar’s sentencing, it was the tireless investigative work of Indianapolis Star journalists.

“What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting,” Povilaitis said.

“Without that first Indianapolis Star story in August 2016, without the story where Rachael [Denhollander] came forward publicly shortly thereafter, he [Nassar] would still be practicing medicine, treating athletes and abusing kids.”

Now, Netflix’s Athlete A will bring that award-winning investigation to life for the very first time.

Is there a trailer for Netflix’s Athlete A?

There is, and it has been viewed over one million times already.

You can watch it for yourself below:

The trailer begins on the same giddy high as many of Netflix’s other 2020 sports documentaries (think Cheer and The Last Dance). We watch a young gymnast prepare for her routine as a crowd chants the words, “USA! USA! USA!” over and over. 

Focusing on the successes of the USA Gymnastics team, we are reminded that they have won “32 bronze medals, 38 silver medals, [and] 34 gold medals.”

The music is soaring, the excitement infectious. And then, all of a sudden, the sound cuts as the trailer reminds us of the team’s other legacy.

“500 survivors of sexual assault.”

What is Netflix’s Athlete A about?

As reported on 2 June: Athlete A was originally slated to debut at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, before the event was cancelled due to the novel coronavirus. Now, the vital documentary will air on Netflix instead, making it accessible to many more people around the world.

As per Netflix’s description, the documentary “follows the IndyStar reporters as they reveal the extensive cover-up and culture of cruelty that was allowed to thrive within elite gymnastics, the attorney fighting the institutions, and most importantly, the brave whistle-blowers who refuse to be silenced.”

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis speaks to the media after the sentencing of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar in Ingham County Circuit Court on January 24, 2018 in Lansing, Michigan. The former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual assault after more than 150 women and girls confronted him in court and spoke of their abuse. (Photo by Anthony Lanzilote/Getty Images)
“What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting,” Michigan Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis said.

Filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk made nearly a dozen visits to Indianapolis after IndyStar published its initial report, titled Out of Balance, on 4 Aug 2016. As in, yes, the same report that led to more than 500 women coming forward to accuse Nassar of sexual abuse.

Working closely with the IndyStar team, the documentary-makers were able to capture Marisa Kwiatkowski, Mark Alesia, Tim Evans, Steve Berta, and Robert Scheer’s award-winning investigation of Nassar’s abuse from start to finish.

As such, Athlete A details how IndyStar’s reporting led to the arrest, conviction, and sentencing of Nassar, the resignation of the organisation’s longtime president, Steve Penny, and bipartisan federal legislation co-sponsored by 16 senators and signed into law by President Donald Trump to prevent amateur athletes from being abused.

Who is “Athlete A”?

The film also focuses largely on “Athlete A,” aka Maggie Nichols, the first gymnast to report Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics.

“One day at practice, I was talking to my teammate, and brought up Dr. Nassar and his treatments,” Nicholls previously told ESPN.

“When I was talking to her, my coach overheard. I had never told my coach about these treatments. After hearing our conversation she asked me more questions about it and said it doesn’t seem right… so she did the right thing and reported this abuse to the USA Gymnastics staff.”

What happened to “Athlete A” Maggie Nichols?

Nichols and hundreds of her fellow abuse survivors were honoured with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2018.

Earlier this year, she published an article for the Champions’ Column, in which she revealed she plans to work as a student coach while she finishes her degree, and that she hopes to write a “book sometime soon about my story.”

“When [I was offered] the opportunity to be the student coach, I took that in two seconds. Being taught by the best of the best is probably the best experience that I’ll get, so I’m just really excited to be around this team one more time and start to learn all the ropes of college coaching,” she said.

Maggie Nichols competes on the balance beam during day 1 of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Women's Gymnastics Team Trials at SAP Center on July 8, 2016 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
The film also focuses largely on “Athlete A,” aka Maggie Nichols, the first gymnast to report Nassar's abuse to USA Gymnastics.

What happened to the IndyStar journalists seen in Netflix’s Athlete A?

IndyStar won the prestigious Investigative Reporters and Editors Tom Renner Award in 2016 and the American Society of News Editors O’Brien Fellowship Award in 2018.

Since the film was made, Kwiatkowski has gone on to work as an investigative reporter for USA Today, and Alesia is director of university communication at Indiana State University. Berta, Evans and Scheer, meanwhile, continue to work on investigations and other stories for IndyStar.

What have those involved said about Netflix’s Athlete A?

Alvie Lindsay, news and investigations director for IndyStar, has said that the documentary is “an honor for IndyStar, and especially for our investigations team that worked so hard to uncover the sexual abuse scandal at USA Gymnastics.”

“We see this documentary as another opportunity for this important work to reach a wider audience and bring greater attention to the need for meaningful reform that protects children,” he added.

Nichols, too, has shown her support for the documentary, regularly posting updates about it via her social media feeds.

“[I am] very excited for this to come out on Netflix,” she said in one such tweet.

And Rachael Denhollander – the first woman to publicly accuse Nassar and a key contributor to the film – has said the documentary will hopefully serve as an important reminder to all those watching that “Larry was able to stay every time by simply saying: ‘These women are confused.’

“It is a product of a community and a culture that sends the message that the sexual assault and abuse of women is not a big deal.”

Is there a trailer for Netflix’s Athlete A?

Not yet, but Netflix is famed for dropping trailers very close to a film or show’s release date. We will be sure to update this article as soon as we have one.

When will Athlete A be available to stream on Netflix?

The documentary will arrive on the streaming platform on 24 June. 

You can find out more about Athlete A, as well as our pick of all the best TV shows and films coming to Netflix in June 2020, here.

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Images: Netflix/Getty

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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