Athlete A (2020), Documentary Review

Author: Hannah Reed

Content Warning: This film includes graphic descriptions of child abuse, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault. This review mentions these topics.

A new Netflix documentary titled Athlete A, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, tells the horrific tale of mass child sexual abuse at USA Gymnastics (USAG) through the eyes of the investigative journalists who first broke the story.

In Athlete A, Cohen and Shenk endeavor to answer the question people around the world asked when the story of Larry Nassar’s abuse first broke in 2016: How does something like this happen? How can one man sexually assault upwards of three hundred children and teens for nearly three decades without being caught? Through the presentation of the testimonies of the survivors, the reporters who led the investigation, and the prosecuting team of the criminal case, we received a definitive answer.

Cohen and Shenk paint a compelling picture of the wider culture of abuse in elite gymnastics, weaving interviews of former Olympic and national team members into their coverage of the investigation of Nassar and USAG by journalists at The Indianapolis Star. In one such testimonial, Jennifer Sey, a member of the 1986 Olympic team, summarized the root of unchecked abuse confirmed by multiple generations of elite gymnasts interviewed for the film. Sey stated, “in other sports, the athletes are adults. They can reasonably make choices about what they want. I don’t think that is true in gymnastics…the line between tough coaching and child abuse gets blurred.” The subjects of the documentary identify multiple points at which adults at USAG and other organizations affiliated with Nassar could have spoken up to protect these children from his abuse. The film simply shows us why they never did: because in a culture that prioritizes championships & brand status over the well-being of athletes, sexual assault becomes one more abuse to be swept under the rug. 

Athlete A gives the young women who survived that abuse a chance to tell their story, their way. It shows us that while they received justice, hundreds of women had to fight tooth and nail to get it. Any genre of media covering sexual abuse and the institutions that condone it often present these events in ways that are shaming, and supportive of a global culture that diminishes and silences survivors of sexual violence. Athlete A defies that expectation and gives a voice to the strong women who sacrificed their privacy to protect future generations from Nassar and men like him.

Athlete A: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content. Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes. Available on Netflix.

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