The long Congressional inquiry into the Larry Nassar scandal, the history of athlete abuse in some sports and the lack of action by U.S. National Governing Bodies was addressed on the Senate side by the filing of a bill to overhaul aspects of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act.
Introduced by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), the bill runs to 42 pages and is especially interesting in reflecting what was learned from the multiple hearings and interviews their subcommittee had on the issue.
● Called the “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019,” the introduction finds that “the United States Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics fundamentally failed to uphold their existing statutory purposes and duties to protect amateur athletes from sexual, emotional or physical abuse.”
● Upon a joint resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, the Board of Directors of the USOPC may be “dissolved” or any National Governing Body may be de-recognized.
● National Governing Bodies and the USOPC are required to “immediately report to law enforcement any allegation of child abuse of an amateur athlete who is a minor” and the NGBs must “promote a safe environment is sports that is free from abuse of any amateur athlete, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse.”
● The bill specifies that the USOPC must undertake a review of each National Governing Body – there are 50 – within eight years after the bill is passed and within four years after that. Further, the selection criteria “for individuals and teams that represent the United States are as objective as possible.” This was a point stressed by USOPC Athletes Advisory Council head Han Xiao during his Congressional testimony last year.
● Athlete support was expanded in the “Office of the Ombudsman” which is required to have support staff in order to provide “independent advice” regarding the role of the Center for SafeSport and whether to engage a lawyer regarding claims of abuse, and protecting any communications with an athlete as confidential.
● Athlete representation elements of the Ted Stevens Act are also specified. The current rule that defines an “athlete” for the purposes of participating in the governing process of the USOPC and the NGBs requires the athlete have represented the U.S. within the prior 10 years; this time limitation is eliminated. Further, the current requirement for “athlete” representation on the USOPC Board of Directors and committees is 20%; this is increased to 33%
This is quite interesting, as Blumenthal pointedly asked a group of National Governing Body executives in one hearing if they would agree to 50% athlete representation on their Boards; all but one said no. But there will be no pushback against a rise from 20% to 33%.
The proposed language, however, continues to demonstrate the lack of understanding of today’s Olympic environment, repeatedly using the term “amateur athletes,” when most are professionals or some sort. In fact, the amateurism requirement hasn’t been in force in the Olympic Charter since 1981. Maybe this can get hammered out as the bill is amended.
● The USOPC will be required to file an annual report with the Congress, including a description of any lawsuits or grievance filed against it, and an annual audit will be carried out that will be submitted directly to the House and Senate committees which have jurisdiction over the USOPC.
● One of the main beneficiaries of this bill is to be the Center for SafeSport, which is tasked to (a) compile and provide an online list of individuals who have been banned by the USOPC or by an NGB, and (b) create procedures to eliminate retaliation by any NGB and anyone who makes a report of abuse.
The USOPC will be required to fund the Center for SafeSport at the rate of $20 million per year, starting as soon as the bill is passed. That’s a lot more than the $3.1 million contributed by the USOC to the Center in 2018.
● The final section of the bill gives the USOPC the power to replace a National Governing Body – this is clearly aimed at USA Gymnastics – even though that NGB may be involved in a bankruptcy proceeding, which would normally stay such a procedure.
The bill also includes the housekeeping measure of changing from “United States Olympic Committee” to “United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee.”
As written, the bill has significant errors that need to be cleaned up, but it represents a very measured approach to changing the USOPC after the Nassar scandal.
Xiao pointedly asked for two new programs to be instituted by the Congress, neither of which is in the bill:
(1) An Inspector General for the USOPC, funded by it, but reporting directly to the Congress and to the Athletes Advisory Council. In his testimony in July 2018, he stated that “The role of this office would be to hear athlete concerns confidentially, without fear of retaliation, about the governance and operation of the USOC and NGBs, to independently investigate issues in the Olympic and Paralympic Movement, and to determine necessary corrective actions.”
Much of this was included in the bill under the expanded “Office of the Ombudsman” within the USOPC, but an outside Inspector General was not created.
(2) Xiao asked for an “Athlete’s Advocate,” which he stated would be available to “provide confidential legal advice to athletes and actively advocate for their rights and interests on a full-time basis. In addition to directly representing athletes when necessary, with a client-attorney relationship, the Athlete Advocate would work with other athlete representatives in the Movement to raise repetitive issues with the USOC, NGBs and other organizations.”
Parts of this were also included in the bill, but not the request for an in-house law firm for athletes to use at no cost.
The Moran-Blumenthal bill is a first step, but the House’s own sub-committee working on this issue will also be heard from Headed by Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colorado) its path forward is not clear and whether it adopts the Senate bill whole or with major changes is yet to be seen.
But Moran and Blumenthal promised action and they have a bill which will be the starting point for more discussions and possibly a shared bill with the House. It certainly does not make the loudest activists happy, but it is a place from which to start the legislative process. Let the Games begin.