It’s been about three years since Rachael Denhollander called the Indianapolis Star and said she was sexually abused by the longtime doctor for the women’s national gymnastics team, Larry Nassar. Since then more than 300 women have said that they were abused by Nassar; the disgraced doctor has been sentenced to essentially life in prison; women and men in other Olympic sports have told their stories of abuse; and Congress has been doing, well—until recently it wasn’t very clear.
The Nassar scandal forced the opening of the U.S. Center for SafeSport in 2017, the idea being that the center would be an independent organization to investigate sexual abuse in Olympic sports. The USOC had promised to open such a center many times, usually right after a sexually abuse crisis happened in an Olympic sport, and trademarked the name way back in 2011. But the sheer size of the Nassar scandal, and the national attention it commanded forced SafeSport into reality.
When the center did open, SafeSport was so underfunded and fraught with conflicts of interest that it couldn’t do its job very well—and it showed. Bans against two brothers repeatedly accused of abuse in taekwondo were overturned. Another ban was overturned in weightlifting after an arbitrator questioned the person reporting the alleged abuse about her sexual history. SafeSport couldn’t enforce its own bans, and lost its first CEO. Congress held a lot of hearings and issued a lot of press releases, and that was about it.
After more than a year of political theatre, this week U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Jerry Moran announced legislation that, they said, would “empower and protect Olympic and amateur athletes through three key reforms.” Creating reforms would require drastically rethinking the U.S. Olympic Committee, the country’s relationship to the Olympic movement, and how youth sports are organized and run nationwide. It would require abolishing the USOC. This bill is not that.
Here is a roundup of several key things the proposal would do. (A full copy of the bill can be found by clicking here.):
- Authorizes Congress to dissolve the USOC’s board of directors via joint resolution if they deem the organization has “failed to fulfill its duties.”
- Requires the USOC to give SafeSport $20 million a year. Those dollars can come from money given by the national governing bodies that oversee various sports, like USA Gymnastics.
- If the USOC or an NGB tries to influence an investigation, SafeSport is supposed to report it to Congress within 72 hours
- Former USOC or NGB members are barred from working for SafeSport until two years have passed.
- Bars executives or counsel for the USOC or NGBs from also representing SafeSport.
- Authorizes the Office of the Ombudsman to provide to athletes advice on “the role, responsibility, and authority” of SafeSport.
- Tells the committee to create a policy that will bar people working at NGBs or the USOC from helping former colleagues get jobs, except for the “routine transmission of administrative and personnel files,” if that former employee is known to have “engaged in sexual misconduct regarding a minor in violation of the law.”
- Asserts that an NGB filing for bankruptcy will not get an automatic stay on the decertification process, which is what happened with USA Gymnastics.
- Requires that one-third of the board members for NGBs and the USOC be amateur athletes, an increase from the current 20 percent.
- Adds that the committee “owes to amateur athletes a duty of care.”
- Says the committee will be audited every year, as opposed to every four years.
- Renames the USOC the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
Is it better than before? Sure. Progress is better than nothing. But is this monumental, transformative progressive? No. Congress created the USOC and always has had the power to create a new national Olympic organization. Instead, the two senators want to celebrate themselves for authorizing Congress to dissolve the committee’s board of directors if they are failing at their jobs—as if there were not piles of evidence already in existence that they are failing at their jobs. The senators are excited about getting it up to about 33 percent of athletes on boards, while still keeping athletes in the voting minority.
The proposal boosts funding for SafeSport by a lot, but that money still has to come from the USOC, the very organization that SafeSport is supposed to police. The legislation tries to address that conflict of interest by saying SafeSport must report any attempts at interference with an investigation to Congress. And from what would Congress do about such interference? The bill doesn’t say. The document also does not address protecting athlete-whistleblowers, even though Han Xiao, chairperson of the Athlete Advisory Council, told Congress last year that, “retaliation against athlete-whistleblowers has been a concern within our movement for many years.” The legislation also ignores Xiao’s request for an independent Office of the Inspector General as well as creating an Athlete Advocate “to provide confidential legal advice to athletes and actively advocate for their rights and interests on a full-time basis.”
Early reports are that the changes are expected to get bipartisan support, which is of little surprise. The entire point of a half-measure is to do something without doing too much, to hold people accountable, but not too stridently, to cause a bit of unease but not upset the entire system. This is not Norway’s Children’s Rights in Sports document. It’s not the creation of a nationwide office that would oversee all youth sports. USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland gave reporters mostly positive statements about it, which is telling. This is a Band-Aid, something to stop the bleeding until the next scandal emerges.