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‘Athlete A’ Producer on Larry Nassar and the ‘Abusive Culture’ of Gymnastics

Athlete A Variety Netflix Review
Courtesy of Melissa J. Perenson

It turns out many fields have their own Harvey Weinsteins, and in the case of gymnastics, it was Olympics team doctor Larry Nassar. The powerful new documentary “Athlete A,” now streaming on Netflix, tells the story of Nassar’s hundreds of victims and looks at how the abuse continued for decades despite numerous reports made by the young athletes.

The documentary takes its name from the pseudonym given to gymnast Maggie Nichols, who was the first to report Nassar to U.S. Gymnastics officials. Nassar is currently serving multiple prison sentences in Michigan.

One of the film’s producers, Jen Sey, was once a champion gymnast. Now chief marketing officer at Levi Strauss, her 2008 book “Chalked Up” was one of the first reports to reveal the brutal culture of competitive gymnastics and its toll on the children and teenagers who give up their lives to compete.

Sey spoke to Variety about what she hopes the documentary will achieve.

What do you hope this film accomplishes for gymnasts and female athletes in general?

I hope that young women see the film and know that they can believe in their own experience. That they won’t doubt, if they experience abuse, and think they are to blame. I hope that they have the courage and conviction to speak up when something isn’t right. I hope they understand obedience and silence is not the answer. In my sport, obedience was trained into us and we were terrified to speak up, to disavow abusive treatment. I wish I’d been better prepared to stick up for myself. I think you have to teach a child to do that so if it happens they are ready and confident and able to do it. I hope that young people who see the film are inspired by the courage of the women who came forward and know they can do the same. And find comfort and courage in the collective of voices. We are stronger together.

How did your own experiences affect your involvement with the film?
I was a gymnast in the ’70s and ’80s and was a national team member for nearly a decade. The sport’s coaching culture is one of extreme cruelty. Emotional and physical abuse is rampant and this sets the conditions for sexual abuse to occur. In my 20s and 30s as I lived as a “normal person” I struggled to make peace with much of what I experienced in the gym. My self-esteem suffered, remnants of an eating disorder plagued me, I accepted poor treatment as it was something I was accustomed to accepting.

When did the public start to hear about what was going on in gymnastics?

I wrote a book called “Chalked Up” in 2008 about the culture of abuse. It was a memoir but I dove deep into the broader culture through my own experience, in an attempt to understand it and resolve it for myself. This unwittingly put me in the position of being an early whistleblower calling out the abusive culture. Since 2008 I’ve been a source for reporters writing about abuse in sport, I’ve written about it myself in the New York Times and other publications.

How did you become involved in the documentary?

I got to know the lawyer for many of the survivors in 2016 as he called me to better understand the culture. Through him, I got to know so many of the Nassar survivors and related to their experiences. I thought to myself: this is a story that needs to be documented and seen by a lot of people.

I felt I could produce it because of my connection to the sport and the people in it and I thought I could bring a necessary perspective to it. I met a producer – Julie Parker Benello – who is also a producer on the film, who introduced me to the directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. And we were off.

Was the point mostly to expose Nassar?

The thing that was most important to me and I think it comes through loud and clear, is that the film not just be a salacious piece about Larry Nassar — that it tells that story clearly but links it to the broader culture of abuse that allowed for him to prey on young women for decades. I think it is successful in doing so.

Why do you think it took so long for Nassar and others to be uncovered?
The mistake is thinking no one came forward. For nearly 20 years, victims came forward. To their parents. To the police. To their coaches and the leaders in organizations that they trained in. No one believed them. No one listened. That has been our culture. We silence, belittle and investigate the survivors. Not the abusers.

What changed that silence?

Then the #metoo movement, came thanks to Tarana Burke who had been working for over a decade to bring survivors healing. And it changed the willingness to listen. And then Rachael Denhollander, the most credible witness ever, came forward and was followed by many many more. It took a village though. The Indy Star reporters who listened and reported the facts. Detective Andrea Munford who investigated the case. Angie Povilaitis who prosecuted the case. John Manly who pursued the civil cases. And the hundreds of women who came together to present an undeniable case. It shouldn’t take that much to listen to women. But it did. And hopefully that will change.