Athlete A

Movie review by
Brian Costello, Common Sense Media
Athlete A Movie Poster Image
Thorough docu about U.S. gymnastics abuse scandal.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 103 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Movie highlights bravery of gymnasts who spoke out against Larry Nassar and pattern of USA Gymnastics ignoring and covering up decades of sexual and physical abuse from trainers and coaches. Also shows importance and value of investigative journalism in uncovering not only Nassar's abuse, but also system that enabled it. 

Positive Role Models & Representations

Gymnasts who spoke out against Nassar did so in face of organization that put winning, endorsements, and "the brand" over health and safety of young women who trained to compete for the USA in the Olympics. They endured skepticism, denial, disgusting internet comments and threats. Through persistence and bravery, they made it possible for other gymnasts to speak out about abuse they suffered, leading to Nassar's arrest and imprisonment, and ended a system that looked the other way while abuse happened. For teens interested in careers in journalism, documentary shows how journalists for Indianapolis Star put in time and effort to expose not only the abuse, but also system that allowed it to continue. 

Violence

Presents a frank discussion of culture of abuse that permeated USA Gymnastics. Graphic talk of how Nassar sexually abused the young gymnasts. Police officer discusses how, at time of Nassar's arrest, they found a hard drive with tens of thousands of child pornography images. Talk of how Bela and Marta Karolyi slapped, choked gymnasts they coached, as well as verbally abusing gymnasts for their weight. 

Sex

Lawyer for one of the gymnasts points out that, for many of these gymnasts, Nassar's abuse was their first experience with sexual acts, how such abuse can damage enjoyment of sex with their partners. 

Language

"S--t" used twice. "Rat's ass." Graphic talk of how Nassar sexually abused gymnasts. Screen scrolls down a social media page to highlight several of the vile comments gymnasts received after making public allegations against Nassar. 

Consumerism

A broader point the documentary makes is that USA Gymnastics was so focused on "selling that brand," they prioritized earning endorsements from companies eager to use wholesome, all-American image of USA Gymnastics and their gymnasts over looking out for safety of young gymnasts in their care. Quick images of McDonald's and Wheaties commercials in which well-known gymnasts were prominently featured. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Athlete A is a documentary about the gymnasts who first spoke out about Larry Nassar's sexual abuse, which was covered up by USA Gymnastics. There's graphic discussion of the ways in which Nassar, as a team doctor for USAG, abused young athletes under the guise of check-ups or treatment for injuries. There's also mention of how coaches physically and verbally abused the gymnasts, resulting in some of these teenage girls developing eating disorders. Some of the vile social media comments made toward the women who spoke out against Nassar are shown. "S--t" is used twice; also "rat's ass." The bravery of the women who spoke out against both Nassar and a system that put winning and "selling that brand" over the health and safety of its gymnasts is an undeniable takeaway from the film, as is the importance and necessity of quality investigative reporting to help uncover the truth. 

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What's the story?

ATHLETE A is a documentary that tells the story of the gymnasts and newspaper reporters who helped bring Larry Nassar to justice for the sexual abuse of hundreds of young gymnasts. As team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Nassar violated these gymnasts under the pretense of exams or treating injuries, and when gymnasts spoke out, their comments were covered up by an organization more concerned with winning gold medals and "selling the brand" of wholesome, all-American athletes to sponsors than with the health and safety of the young athletes under its care. "Athlete A" is in reference to Maggie Nichols, a gymnast who was a rising star in USAG but was dropped from the 2016 U.S. Olympic team after reporting Nassar's abuse in 2015. Around this time, reporters from the Indianapolis Star began looking into allegations against Nassar and how USAG encouraged a policy of not reporting allegations when gymnasts and their parents demanded answers. As more gymnasts begin speaking out to the reporters, criminal investigations begin, and the audience sees how Nassar's sexual abuse was part of a culture in which coaches beloved by the sports media were physically and verbally abusive and officials simply looked the other way. 

Is it any good?

While the terrible story of how USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar sexually abused hundreds of young female gymnasts is known, this documentary shows how a broken system allowed it to happen. As the central story of young gymnasts like Maggie Nichols (the "Athlete A" who spoke out about the abuse she suffered while training to compete in the 2016 Olympics) and her parents demanding answers unfolds, Athlete A deftly balances the forward momentum of the story with backstory and context. The sickness of a USAG culture that demanded winning and "selling that brand" over everything and everyone else is brought into a painfully vivid focus, and one of the takeaways is the shocking lengths USAG coaches and officials went to, enabling the abuse in the interests of maintaining USAG's squeaky-clean image of all-American goodness for lucrative sponsorship deals.

This is also a story of bravery, and Athlete A shows the risks these young gymnasts took and the sacrifices they made in bringing Nassar's abuse to light. Athlete A also serves as a reminder of the importance and necessity of dedicated journalists and solid investigative reporting, now more than ever. And like the best sports documentaries, Athlete A forces us to examine the larger culture beyond the headlines, and how an organization could become so obsessed with being number one and getting deep-pocketed sponsors that all values of basic human decency were cast aside. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about documentaries. How did Athlete A use different techniques to provide the facts and context of the story?

  • How is this movie a great example of how documentaries can dig deeper into a story than, say, a news report?

  • In a time when journalists and journalism are routinely criticized by people in power, how does this documentary show the importance and necessity of quality investigative journalism?

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