Legislation aims to protect athletes with U.S. Olympic and Paralympic reforms

(Susan Walsh | AP) Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, left, talks with Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., right, following a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on "Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes," on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 24, 2018.

Washington • After an 18-month inquiry into the factors that enabled USA Gymnastics’ former team doctor to sexually abuse more than 300 athletes over a two-decade span, a congressional subcommittee Tuesday is expected to introduce legislation designed to ensure the safety of Olympic and amateur athletes.

In broad strokes, the Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019, if approved, would mandate significant reform of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee governance structure in three key areas.

The changes are being recommended after a bipartisan Senate Commerce subcommittee, led by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal , D-Conn., reached conclusions of negligent behavior on the part of former executives of the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics after a review of thousands of documents, four hearings and interviews with athletes, survivors, coaches, parents, advocates, Olympic officials and law enforcement officers.

Although Larry Nassar, the former team physician for USA Gymnastics, acted alone and is now serving an effective life sentence for child pornography and sexually abusing girls and young women under the guise of medical treatment, the congressional panel concluded that the negligence of the USOC and USA Gymnastics enabled his abuse.

The panel concluded that the USOC and USA Gymnastics "knowingly concealed abuse by Larry Nassar, leading to the abuse of dozens of additional amateur athletes from summer 2015 to September 2016."

(The USOC changed its name last month to the USOPC to be more inclusive by recognizing Paralympic athletes.)

The panel also concluded gymnastics was not the only setting for the abuse of prospective Olympians. Rather, in a fact pattern repeated in other Olympic sports, institutions "failed to act aggressively to report wrongdoing," and officials in positions of power "prioritized their own reputation or the reputation of [a sport's national governing body] over the health and safety of the athletes" and tried to conceal their negligence.

Moran and Blumenthal addressed the findings and discussed the remedies proposed in their bill during a conference call Monday. They characterized it as "a moment of reckoning," one year in advance of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"Larry Nassar was not a lone wolf; he was not the only predator or monster out there," Blumenthal said. "The USOC has to be made accountable, and that's one of the key goals of this legislation."

Added Moran: "We want to change the culture and thought process so there are no more . . . victims of sexual abuse."

To that end, the bill they are expected to introduce Tuesday calls for governance changes in three key areas:

• Increasing the legal liability for the USOPC and the 47 individual sport-specific governing bodies under its umbrella, such as USA Gymnastics, for instances of sexual abuse by coaches and employees. The USOPC would be required to maintain a public list of all banned coaches to ensure that they are not simply rehired elsewhere. Moreover, Congress would have the right and means to dissolve the USOPC’s board of directors for failure to fulfill its oversight responsibility, as well as to decertify individual sports’ governing bodies for their failures.

- Giving athletes a larger voice in the governance of the USOPC and in their respective sports. Specifically, the representation of athletes on the Olympic committee's board would increase from one-fifth to one-third. Athletes' representation in each sport's governing body would also increase to the same level, from one-fifth to one-third.

• Strengthening the Center for SafeSport, which was created as an independent, nonprofit clearinghouse and advocate for Olympians and would-be Olympians who feel they are being physically, mentally or sexually abused. The bill would require the USOPC to provide the center $20 million per year to do its work more effectively. To ensure the center’s independence, employees of the USOPC or individual sports’ governing bodies would be barred from serving at the center, to guard against improper interference.

Scott Blackmun, the former USOC chief executive who was forced to resign in February 2018, apologized for Nassar's abuse in written testimony but also maintained that the USOC had no authority over Nassar, foisting the oversight role onto USA Gymnastics. Blackmun received a $2.4 million severance from the USOC board.

Blackmun's successor, Sarah Hirshland, said in a statement Monday that the proposed legislation was consistent with the reforms the USOPC has already undertaken but raised an unspecified concern about "unintended consequences."

"We applaud Congress for their continued work on this critically important issue," she said. "There are sections in the proposed legislation that, while conceptually appropriate, could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality. We look forward to working with Senators Moran, Blumenthal and others in Congress to address these areas, make athletes more safe, and make Olympic and Paralympic organizations in the U.S. as exceptional as the athletes they serve."

John Manly, an attorney who represents nearly 200 Nassar victims, praised the legislation after reviewing a draft Monday - particularly its finding that the USOPC engaged in what he called "systemic criminality" in enabling Nassar's abuse.

"It essentially guts the USOC's power in the area of athlete safety," Manly said, "by saying: 'You're no longer policing yourself. We're policing you.' Oversight is no fun if you're engaged in bad behavior."

But three-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar - a co-founder of Team Integrity, a group of 150 athlete advocates who feel the USOPC needs a more substantive overhaul to properly safeguard athletes - found it lacking.

“What is important to athletes is to prevent the possibility of another Scott Blackmun, a corrupt leader, and a Larry Nassar, someone who took advantage of the Olympic system to abuse athletes,” Hogshead-Makar said after reviewing the bill. “This legislation does not prevent either of those possibilities. We asked Congress for changes to governance that would allow athletes more control of the budget and their futures, and this legislation does not do that.”