Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk
Starring Maggie Nichols, Rachael Denhollander, Jamie Dantzscher
History shows us pandemics leave momentous social changes in their wake. The Black Death ushered in the Renaissance; the great flu pandemic of 1918 heralded massive changes in the world’s approach to public health. So is it wish fulfillment to hope, as we watch documentaries like Athlete A on Netflix in the middle of a COVID-19 lockdown, that another great social reckoning is on the horizon?
Athlete A refers to Maggie Nichols, a gymnast who reported her sexual abuse at the hands of team doctor Larry Nassar to the authorities of USA Gymnastics in 2015 and was left off the Olympic delegation to Rio de Janeiro as a result. Directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk structure their documentary as a kind of iris, zooming in on Maggie’s horrifying story from other disparate plot lines, then zooming out to show the ripple effects that her courage—and the bravery of other women she didn’t know—had on the toxic culture that cultivated her victimization.
First, we follow investigative reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski from the Indianapolis Star (it’s almost funny how the documentary has to append the paper’s name to the phrase “part of the USA Today network” like it was a legal requirement), who was looking into the under-reporting of sexual abuse in schools. A source indicated that she should look into USA Gymnastics as well.
In August 2016, Kwiatkowski and her colleagues Mark Alesia and Tim Evans, under the supervision of their editor Steve Berta, started looking into the USA Gymnastics’ long record of not passing on to the authorities complaints of sexual misconduct that they’ve received. What they uncovered was astonishing: 54 of USA Gymnastics’ coaches have had allegations of sexual abuse hurled at them over the course of ten years, and the organization actively quelled inquiry into most of the cases.
The documentary cuts back and forth between the paper’s dogged chasing of leads and the triumphs of the women’s gymnastics team in Rio…and the effect is chilling. It’s a bit like watching a seaside village obliviously going about life as usual while a tsunami is building offshore. And like a tsunami, the waves would inevitably hit: When the Indianapolis Star broke its story, ex-amateur gymnast Racheal Denhollander realized it was time to tell hers. She sent the Star an e-mail saying they should look not just at the coaches, but at team doctor Larry Nassar too.
Two other former gymnasts—Jessica Howard and 2000 Olympian Jamie Dantzscher—got in touch with the paper independently, and Athlete A folds Maggie Nichols’ story of shattered dreams and tentative redemption into theirs. From there, the documentary widens its scope, exploring the culture of impunity that allowed a predator like Nassar to molest these malleable youngsters.
Athlete A offers a searing indictment of the lopsided priorities of USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny, who put endorsement deals ahead of his athletes’ well-being, and the dehumanizing training methods of Béla and Márta Károlyi, the Romanian defectors most famous for shepherding the triumph of Nadia Comaneci. The Károlyis’ ruthless stewardship of these girls’ abilities at their isolated ranch gave Nasser the entry point and unfettered privacy he needed to carry out his perversions.
Athlete A’s attention to detail is granular, often ickily so. You can’t help but squirm as reporter Tim Evans asks sports doctors if there are any injuries at all that would require vaginal or anal penetration by an examining physician. It can also be flabbergasting, such as when USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar to “resign” because he had been elected to his community’s school board. Details like these help make Athlete A’s ultimate resolution satisfying and cathartic.
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But after a season of watching other documentaries like Leaving Neverland and Surviving R Kelly and Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich, Athlete A also makes you wonder. About how powerful men can just keep plucking the innocence of the powerless at will over and over again. About how society keeps putting up walls of protection around these dastardly men. About how the random acts of bravery from strangers can form a tapestry of hope and reckoning. And about how soon—Lord, please let it be soon—that reckoning will be seen and felt in our own lives.
Athlete A is currently streaming on Netflix.