Human Trafficking Charges and Coach's Death Reopen Deep Wounds of Gymnastics
Michigan prosecutors said John Geddert died by suicide shortly after he was charged with human trafficking and criminal sexual conduct.
On Thursday, when a coach of the 2012 Women's Olympic Team was charged with human trafficking and sexually assaulting a teenage girl, before killing himself a short time later, the sexual abuse crisis that has shaken American gymnastics deepened.
In the investigation and conviction of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former U.S. national team doctor, who abused hundreds of girls and women, the charges against the coach and gym owner, John Geddert, again highlighted the dark side of the marquee Olympic sport.
The Geddert case grew out of the Nassar investigation and after being accused of abuse, Mr. Geddert was suspended by U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2018. Soon after, he announced his retirement from the Dimondale, Mich., Twistars gymnastics club, the gym he owned.
The charges against Mr. Geddert, 63, revealed a previously unreported level of abuse at the hands of a coach who had assisted the team to a gold medal in 2012 and worked closely with Mr. Nassar. It is also now clear that the crimes of Mr. Nassar were far from an aberration in a sport known for its grace, beauty and daring physical feats performed by athletes.
The charges were filed by Dana Nessel, Michigan's attorney general, who said the victims suffered from self-harm and eating disorders and suffered "extreme" psychological and physical abuse, including being forced to train while injured.
"To this day, many of these victims still carry these scars from their behavior," said Ms. Nessel.
In accusing Mr. Geddert of human trafficking, Ms. Nessel planned a new legal strategy. The term refers not only to sexual exploitation, but to coerced labor of any kind, and Ms. Nessel accused Geddert of "subjecting his athletes under extreme conditions to forced labor or services that contributed to injuries and damage to them." In an effort to stop coaches and other people in power in gymnastics from abusing young athletes who might be too intimidated or scared to speak out, the charge was added.
John Manly, a lawyer for Mr. Geddert and Mr. Nassar's victims, said the charges of trafficking in human beings could deter other coaches from abusing their athletes or continuing to abuse them.
In a phone interview, Mr. Manly said, "It's an important step in child protection." "It tells the other John Gedderts that you will be held to account if you do this."
Ouleye Ndoye, who serves on Wellspring Living's board of directors, a shelter for people who have been trafficked based in Atlanta, said she thought the alleged crimes fit the elements of "force, fraud and coercion" that define trafficking.
"They're checking all the boxes," she said. "We don't have to kidnap them. Inherent in the way he exploited their careers is coercion.
"I think the definition is properly applied and I believe more states should follow suit," she added. "As the sole definition of what human trafficking looks like, we should stop using chains and bars and cages. The fact is, right under our noses, it's happening.
An attorney for Mr. Geddert did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Mr. Geddert failed to report for a scheduled arraignment in the afternoon. His body was found Thursday afternoon, the State Police said in a statement on Twitter, at a rest area along an interstate highway in Clinton County, Mich.
Many of Mr. Geddert's victims were upset by the suicide, said Mr. Manly, who spoke to some of them by phone after they had heard the news.
"They were gratified that the A.G. did what she did, but they were horrified that because they really wanted their day in court, he was able to end it like this," he said.
"I said they should all put their heads on their pillows tonight and sleep well, knowing that John Geddert could never hurt another girl," he said, telling the women to focus on one major takeaway.
The most recent high-profile figure in gymnastics to be accused of assaulting his athletes or allowing abuse in the sport struggling to correct itself was Mr. Geddert, who coached the 2012 Olympian Jordyn Wieber to an all-around title at the 2011 World Championships.
More than 150 girls and women abused by Mr. Nassar gave formal statements in a Michigan court in January 2018, known as victim impact statements against him, telling their stories of physical and mental abuse in the sport. Some spoke of the harsh coaching practices of Mr. Geddert.
One of his former gymnasts, Makayla Thrush, said that Mr. Geddert had ended her career by throwing her on top of the low bar of the uneven bars and the ruptured lymph nodes in her neck, giving her a black eye and tearing her stomach muscles. But, Ms. Thrush and other gymnasts said, intimidation and persistent mental abuse were beyond the physical abuse at Mr. Geddert's gym.
"Ms. Thrush said, "You told me to kill myself not only once, but many other times, and unfortunately, I let you get the best of me.
The testimony of the gymnasts turned a spotlight on a tyrannical coaching culture that had frightened abused gymnasts into silence.
That approach, championed by many of the top coaches in the world, was tolerated, and even encouraged, in some instances, because it was thought to yield gold medals. This summer, hundreds of gymnasts around the world appeared on social media to tell their stories of abuse and to demand change in gymnastics organizations that cater to athletes of all levels.
Mr. Geddert was part of a coaching system which helped the gymnasts themselves win those medals at a high cost.
In a statement, Sarah Klein, a former student of Mr. Geddert's who was abused by Mr. Nassar, said that Mr. Geddert at his gym "maintained a culture of fear."
"Geddert and Nassar were close friends and it was widely known that it would have been unthinkable to approach him and complain about Nassar's actions," said Ms. Klein.
The arrest and death of Mr. Geddert puts even more pressure on the U.S.A. Gymnastics, the national gymnastics governing body, to attempt to find ways to stop abuse in the sport. The federation is already facing a battery of lawsuits brought by the victims of Mr. Nassar and a multimillion settlement that it suggested last year was turned down. Since 2018, the federation has also been going through bankruptcy proceedings.
The federation has failed its constituents and continues to do so, some gymnasts, including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and the top star of the sport, have said. Ms. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, told CBS's "60 Minutes" earlier this month that if she ever had one, she would not allow her daughter to participate in a U.S. gymnastics program because it failed to make the sport safe.
Because they have not taken responsibility for their actions and what they have done," she said, "I do not feel comfortable enough. "And they have not guaranteed us that it will never happen again."
Rachael Denhollander, who participated in meetings as a gymnast with athletes from Twistars, called the charges brought against Mr. Geddert "sobering."
"The reality is that the abuse of Geddert has never been a secret," Ms. Denhollander said. "Decades ago, Geddert could have and should have been stopped."