I wrote this article while watching the press conference announcing the filing of 24 charges against John Geddert. At the time, I thought to myself that this trial will open up a wonderful opportunity to enact a society-wide cultural reform where abusive coaching behavior is no longer tolerated as “just sports.” Had it happened, the trial of John Geddert would have been a milestone. Laying the template for future prosecutors to more effectively go after coaches who commit verbal and mental abuse.
But as most of you know, that trial will never happen. While proof-reading this article news broke that John Geddert had died by suicide. Ever since, this article has been sitting in my inbox unpublished. But I have decided to go ahead with publishing it. Because the story of Geddert’s death shouldn’t overshadow the remarkable success of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. What she had done was quietly reveal a revolutionary new legal strategy that could do wonders in curtailing the prevalence of coaching abuse inside gyms all over the country.
I do not believe her work should be overlooked in the context of larger events. I believe Dana Nessel deserves recognition for her breakthrough tactic, and I think it will help answer questions from gymnastics fans who are still trying to make sense of the events that have recently transpired. Below is the article, unedited from the moment I first learned of Geddert’s death. It is now a reflection of what could have been.
The Ambitious New Legal Strategy That Could Stop Abusive Coaching
If I were to tell you that John Geddert would be arrested, get charged with 24 counts, and have words like human trafficking, running a criminal enterprise, forced labor, and racketeering in the official complaint filing, you wouldn’t think it had anything to do with gymnastics.
These charges feel more in line with what you would see in a case involving forced child prostitution and high level violent crime. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel is being intentionally coy in regards to what specific incidents they are basing these charges on as there is only so much she can say outside the court of law. But one thing is clear, they didn’t find a secret crime ring that was previously unknown, these charges stem from allegations of coaching abuse.
What makes this case so significant is that it breaks a double-standard that has existed for so long in sports. That double standard being, behavior that would be deemed unacceptable anywhere else, only to be forgiven or brushed off because it occurs inside a sporting context. Examples of this include fistfights on football fields rarely leading to criminal charges, but the exact same conduct on the streets would get someone arrested.
The same double standard exists in gymnastics where coaches routinely treat their gymnasts in ways that would be deemed unacceptable in any other context, but are given a pass because it occurs in a sporting context. To put John Geddert’s coaching style into context, here is one account.
“Makayla Thrush, who trained at Geddert’s club from ages 7 to 17, said she developed an eating disorder because of Geddert and accused him of becoming so angry that he threw her on top of a low bar, ruptured the lymph nodes in her neck, gave her a black eye and tore the muscles in her stomach, ending her career.”
On two different occasions local authorities responded to allegations of abuse involving John Geddert occurring at his Twistars gym. In the first instance, local police had given so little attention to it, Geddert was able to avoid being interviewed because he missed his first appointment with detectives and detectives said they were unavailable when Geddert tried to reschedule. The case was submitted to prosecutors who then proceeded to decline filing charges.
In the second incident:
In October 2013, state troopers again investigated claims that Geddert assaulted someone at Twistars.
The alleged victim, a juvenile gymnast, told police Geddert got mad at her while practicing, then “took her into the locker room, stepped on her toe, grabbed her arm and push [sic] her into the wall,” according to the documents.
In April 2014, Lloyd’s office declined to press charges but ordered Geddert to complete counseling. “If Geddert does not complete counseling the prosecutor’s office will issue (charges),” police wrote.
At every step of the way, John Geddert was able to elude consequence because society as a whole does not take this issue seriously. When coaches demonstrate terrible behavior, it is passed off as “that’s just sports.” It is defended by those saying high level competition isn’t easy and a tough coaching environment is necessary. Frequent phrases such as “that is how champions are made.” Often times people see the behavior as wrong, but sympathize with the abuser. Dismissing his or her conduct as “wrong, but understandable.” The coach is simply passionate about the job and wants the best for his/her athlete. The coach simply got “overheated” or “too passionate.”
That attitude is what allowed police investigators to not seriously investigate John Geddert and for prosecutors to favor counseling over pressing charges. For years gymnastics fans have wanted to see John Geddert crucified. Some meant that in the figurative sense, others meant it quite literally. While gymnastics fans were united in their disdain for John Geddert, most thought the legal repercussion he would face would gloss over his gymnastics coaching style.
But rather, his main legal concern would be things like obstruction of justice. Conventional wisdom dictates that when gymnastics officials run into legal trouble, it is usually something related to the coverup of a scandal, rather than the scandal itself. The end result being gymnastics fans feel there was no real justice, and the justice being found didn’t provide the answers, closure, and accountability they were looking for. Gymnastics fans simply had to take what they could get.
Enter Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel who has decided that cycle stops today. Dana Nessel is pioneering a new legal strategy, one that has already given John Geddert the fight of his life as he is currently facing a list of charges so extreme, he could be in prison for the rest of his life.
Throughout history there have been countless instances where a lone of group of legal experts manage to revolutionize the system not by creating new tools for themselves, but rethinking the tools they already have. It is a common tactic for legal minds to solve a problem they have been previously unable to solve, by taking an existing law and applying it in a different way.
In sports, the best example of this is Title IX. The legislation that is seen as the foundation of women’s sports and forced the widespread inclusion of women in the sports world. But the statute itself doesn’t have the word “sports” in it anywhere. When it was written/introduced, Title IX was aimed at protecting women in the workplace and prevent their being sexually harassed and passed over for promotions on college campuses. What ended up happening, NCAA lawyers quickly realized that this new law applied to them as well.
For forty years Big Tobacco had dodged major ramifications on the issue of its dangerous products, until the 1990s when Mississippi’s Attorney General led a new legal strategy against them. That strategy was the realization that smoking increases medical costs, the state is left to carry the burden of those medical costs via Medicaid, and thus, Big Tobacco could be hit with crippling lawsuits to recoup those costs. Call it thinking outside the box or attacking from a different direction, but these tactics do work. All it takes is rethinking your legal strategy.
Sidenote: Mississippi’s tobacco strategy was adopted by nearly every state. The person who came up with the idea is currently leading a similar lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies to combat the opioid crisis. He also played a part in getting asbestos removed from public buildings throughout the state.
For Dana Nessel, that new legal strategy is treating an out of control gymnastics club in the same way you would treat a gangster running a crime ring. If there is a coach using his status as an adult to coerce a child athlete into doing something she doesn’t want to do, why not call that “human trafficking of a minor” and “forced labor.” If you break a gymnast to the point of injury, why not label it as “forced labor causing injury?” Do that dozens of times so you can pocket the thousands of dollars parents pay you to get results, why not call that a “criminal enterprise?”
By her own admission, Dana Nessel knows these charges are unconventional in a case like this. But Nessel is confident that the charges will stick. Her team has spent two years reviewing case law and believe they have the proper foundation to argue in court that these laws are indeed applicable. Dana Nessel is laying the groundwork in Michigan, and providing a template that the Attorney Generals in 49 other states can follow.
How will coaches react when they realize actions that would once get them counseling in exchange for dropping charges, could now get them charges with 15-20 years of prison time associated with them? How quickly will coaches adjust their behavior knowing the rules have changed and they are now vulnerable to decades of prison time after witnessing the Gedder case?
While I do not see the Geddert case as being the solution that will completely end the existence of abusive coaching, I do believe this case has the potential to be a game changer and deliver a crippling blow to abuse culture in sports. Such a crippling blow is long overdue, and Dana Nessel may have figured out how to do it.