Athlete A Parent Guide
This harrowing documentary is a valuable resource for discussions around the abuse of children and teens.
Parent Movie Review
Gymnastics has long been one of the marquee events of the Summer Olympics. As the gymnasts flip, spin, and tumble through their routines, audiences marvel at their training and self-discipline. Sadly, for too many of these young gymnasts their years of preparation were marred by sexual abuse, perpetrated by those who were entrusted with their care. Athlete A tells the harrowing story of Dr. Larry Nassar and his decades-long abuse of USA Gymnastics’ athletes. Cutting together interviews contemporary news footage and video evidence, this documentary paints a damning picture of a systemic failure to protect children from predators.
What distinguishes Athlete A as a documentary is that the filmmakers clearly tried to avoid making a true-crime drama piece. Instead of playing the most grotesque clips they could find and having a dramatic narrative voiceover, they have sought to understand and explain the structural problems which allowed the abuse to occur. The emotional abuse endemic to gymnastics coaching is portrayed as a form of grooming which makes the survivors less likely to complain about their treatment, creating an environment where pedophiles thrive.
Nor is sexual abuse the only harm stemming from the coaching methods employed in modern competitive gymnastics. Athletes discuss the toll their training took on them physically, as they would frequently be forced to play through agonizing injuries. Eating disorders were another common consequence of hypercritical coaching staff and a focus on smaller, more agile athletes. The broader examination of systemic failures in the USA Gymnastics program makes the documentary that much more effective in explaining why Nassar was able to get away with his abuse for the better part of 30 years.
The film opens with a title card which warns viewers about the sensitive nature of the subject matter, which is a good idea. Obviously, the documentary focuses on child sexual abuse, and individuals with personal experience may find the content triggering. However, the film avoids showing or describing more than it feels is narratively necessary, which is a mercy. There are further references to images of child sexual abuse, eating disorders, and grooming which may upset viewers. Beyond that, there is little in the way of content concerns. There are two scatological profanities and a handful of mild curses, and two clips of gymnasts being injured during complex routines.
I wouldn’t recommend this for family viewing with younger children due to the somewhat adult subject matter, but this is otherwise an excellent resource in understanding this well-publicized case. It can also be a helpful jumping off point for discussions about child sexual abuse and how to report it. Better still, it helps to put a face to a terrible scandal. With many pedophiles, a documentary might have a mugshot and a few clips from the courtroom: there is endless footage of Nassar interacting with his victims for Athlete A to work with. But most importantly, it helps to give survivors a voice to directly address their past, and hopefully to protect other young people from similar experiences.Directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk. Running time: 103 minutes. Theatrical release June 24, 2020. Updated June 25, 2020
Watch the trailer for Athlete A
Rating & Content Info
Why is Athlete A rated PG-13? Athlete A is rated PG-13 by the MPAA for mature thematic content including detailed descriptions of sexual abuse of minors.
Violence: Two young women are shown sustaining painful injuries while performing gymnastics. There is repeated discussion of frequent sexual assaults.
Sexual Content: There are references to and descriptions of child sexual abuse, some of which can be unpleasantly detailed.
Profanity: There are two uses of scatological cursing and a number of mild profanities and terms of deity.
Alcohol / Drug Use: None.
Page last updated June 25, 2020
Athlete A Parents' Guide
For more about the Larry Nassar scandal, check these links:
Vox: The sex abuse scandal surrounding USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, explained. (Some graphic detail):
The Cut: Everyone Believed Larry Nassar
How can you recognize the signs of sexual abuse? How can you talk to your child about this kind of abuse?
How can you tell if your child is being abused by a coach or teacher? How can you protect your child?
Protect Young Minds: Are Your Kids Safe from Abuse in Sports? 3 Questions Every Parent Should Ask
Play by the Rules: The rise of emotional abuse in children’s sport
Loved this movie? Try these books…
For more about the Nassar scandal, you can read Abigail Pesta’s The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down. This scandal is also explored in Start by Believing: Larry Nassar’s Crimes, the Institutions that Enabled Him, and the Brave Women Who Stopped a Monster, written by John Barr and Dan Murphy.
Survivors of Nassar’s abuse have written about their experiences. Rachael Denhollander has penned What Is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics. Rachel Haines has written Abused: Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture.
The perennial abuse problems in gymnastics are dissected by sports reporter Joan Ryan in Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which also deals with similar issues in the elite world of figure skating.
Related home video titles:
If you want to discuss coach/teacher abuse with your kids but are looking for something less intense than Athlete A, you can try Feel the Beat. This Netflix dance movie centers on a self-absorbed dancer who uses a class of young girls as stepping stones for her career.
In Spotlight, reporters from The Boston Globe break the story of sexual abuse from members of the Roman Catholic clergy.