Disgraced former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who has been accused and convicted of sexual abuse by 265 young women and men, will spend the rest of his life in jail. But for years, Nassar’s incessant abuse was enabled by a toxic culture of success above all else, lack of questioning authority (and at times almost godlike worship of it), and an environment where gymnasts’ basic health and wellbeing was routinely ignored.
Nassar is out, but questions still remain regarding the conditions and practices that enabled his abuse for so long. Those questions are also easily applicable to drum corps, where the long- celebrated grueling culture of perfection desperately needs to be acknowledged as toxic.
As an activity that mostly stays out of the public eye and media scrutiny, Drum Corps International, the Indianapolis-based umbrella organization of an activity that can only be described as extreme marching band, has fostered a culture eerily echoing the toxicity that enabled Nassar’s abuse within USA Gymnastics.
In an activity where the daily standard is perfection, and directors are seen as gods to corps members, the culture cultivated within 10-time world champion corps the Cadets was the perfect environment for the sexual harassment and assault now being alleged against former director George Hopkins, The Inquirer found.
Nine women are accusing Hopkins of harassment and assault ranging from inappropriate sexual comments to rape. The accusers ranged in age from 16 to 37 at the time of the incidents, which span four decades from 1980 until a few years ago, according to The Inquirer.
Like elite gymnastics, the constant goal drum corps is perfection, which fosters an environment where personal sacrifices are often made to be the very best. Both DCI performers and elite gymnasts have been expected to work themselves to the breaking point under sometimes abusive conditions.
The parallels between the toxic environment of USA Gymnastics and the Cadets as described by Hopkins accusers continue.
“It was like Hopkins was God,” Kim Carter told The Inquirer, who alleges being forced into a sexual relationship with Hopkins in order to keep her job when she worked for the corps in 2006. Within USA Gymnastics, Marta Karolyi, former head of the women’s program, who led the U.S. team to unprecedented success from 2001 to 2016, was that god-like figure. Another Hopkins’ accuser, Meg Toth, told The Inquirer that at the time, drum corps was “my religion.”
Recently, former coach of Olympic champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber was suspended amidst allegations of emotional and physical abuse that spanned years, and resulted in the attempted suicide of a Gedderts Twistars gymnast in 2012. This development opens the door to the fact that abuse within gymnastics is widespread, and though the Hopkins’ allegations are still developing, it’s hard not to think that the case is the same for drum corps.
Both the Cadets and USA Gymnastics remained out of the public eye for most of the year. For most, gymnastics is an every-four-years event, and most don’t even know what drum corps is. The lack of media attention and public scrutiny aided in fostering a culture where abuse could thrive. And in a program where directors and coordinators are seen as saviors, as in the case of Karolyi and Hopkins, few participants want to risk speaking out and jeopardizing their dreams.
For years, the culture of drum corps has gone unquestioned, but this needs to be the turning point. As in the case of USA Gymnastics, it is imperative that DCI conduct an independent investigation into not only these allegations, but the culture that enabled Hopkins’ continued abuse to occur. Transparency, and the placement of performers’ safety over the reputation of Cadets and DCI staff is key.
It is also the responsibility of drum corps fan, who are some of the most hardcore in the world, to question the toxic culture that for so long has gone unquestioned within the drum corps community.
Corps directors need to stop being viewed as god-like figures, and start being seen as regular people who need to be held accountable for their actions.
The allegations against Hopkins are still fresh, as is his resignation as director of the Cadets, but with Hopkins’ accusers citing the #MeToo movement as one of the reasons for coming forward, this needs to be the beginning of a much-needed reckoning period within the drum corps community.
Images via IndyStar