Olympic overhaul spurred on by mishandled abuse cases
Legal loopholes paved the way for toxic environments in the United States Olympic Committee. Now, a new bipartisan bill makes a move toward change.
A bill spurred by Larry Nassar's sex crimes and other mishandled abuse cases would allow Congress to fire the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee's entire board and would quadruple the money the federation provides to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.
The bill, to be introduced Tuesday, is the most far-reaching response to 18 months of outrage, investigations, and recriminations in the wake of the USOPC's handling of the cases involving Mr. Nassar and others who combined to victimize dozens of Olympic athletes.
"The best way for the USOC and the national governing [bodies] to show they're serious about stopping abuse is to support this legislation," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. "It'll be a test to their commitment to turning a new page and bringing in a new era."
The bill would increase athlete representation on the USOPC board and boards of other Olympic sports organizations (NGBs) from 20% to 33%. It would make the USOPC and NGBs legally responsible for not reporting sexual abuse or failing to take measures to prevent it.
The law calls for the USOPC to provide $20 million a year to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, but offers no specifics as to how the additional $15 million will be funded. The USOPC, which receives no federal funding, gave $3.1 million in 2018 and NGBs doubled their pledge to a total of $2 million.
Last year, Congress provided a $2.2 million grant to the center that was spread over three years and could not be used for investigations. Mr. Blumenthal said having a concrete number that's separate from the Congressional appropriations process is a better way of ensuring the success of the center and the USOC's responsibility for funding it. The USOC brings in around $500 million over a typical two-year period.
But as much as the money, this bill is a virtual top-to-bottom reset of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, passed in 1978 during a time when the biggest concern was corralling the amateurism and cronyism that festered throughout Olympic governance in the United States.
The law was hazy, at best, regarding the USOC's power to dictate to the NGBs it oversees. It said even less about athlete welfare and what, if any, legal repercussions existed for failing to protect them. Those flaws created an environment that allowed Mr. Nassar to abuse dozens of gymnasts while volunteering for USA Gymnastics, and for his crimes to go unchecked for more than a year after the concerns were first presented to the USOPC.
This bill, called the "Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019," would attempt to change that, in part by leaving little gray area about the USOPC's oversight responsibilities of NGBs, especially in regard to sex abuse. It calls for the USOPC to renew an NGB's standing every four years, subject to a review that would include how the organization is complying with safe-sports rules. It gives Congress the right to decertify an NGB.
It would also eliminate the tactic currently being used by USA Gymnastics, as it faces decertification: filing bankruptcy to forestall the proceedings.
And though the USOPC has always had to answer to Congress, the stakes would be much higher – and written in plain black and white.
The 14-person board, which has gone largely – and, in many minds, inappropriately – unscathed in a series of damning reports that detailed the failings of the federation, could be dismissed by a simple majority vote in Congress. The bill includes language that would expedite the vote, while also giving lawmakers the tricky task of figuring out how the board would be replaced.
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said that while the bill complements the federation's push for reforms, it "could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality."
For instance, the $20 million to SafeSport, along with the increased oversight and added audits and compliance measures, could impact funding available for training. Luring board members for a volunteer position (but one with perks) could be more difficult with the threat of Congressional pink slips hanging over their heads. Adding athletes to those boards, and eliminating a requirement that they be no more than 10 years removed from elite competition, will create various challenges for the USOPC and the NGBs – most related in some way to finding enough functional business and current-day sports experience to run these confusing operations.
The bill, and the process that led to it, involved lawmakers digging into far more detail than they usually care to know regarding the day-to-day operation of the byzantine Olympic sports world – a world that has provided them an easy platform for flag waving without having to sweat the small stuff.
But given the bipartisan nature of this bill – and similar bipartisan outrage displayed during hearings on the House side – there appears to be more will to dig deep and push for change in the wake of the abuse scandal, the victims of which have captured as many headlines as any gold-medal winner since Mr. Nassar's crimes became widely known.
"The simple stark fact is that the USOC has taken some baby steps, but they're nowhere near the kind of major reforms that need to be done," Mr. Blumenthal said.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.