The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation convened today its third hearing looking into the Larry Nassar scandal, as well as the people and institutions that enabled him to sexually abuse athletes for years under the guise of medical treatment. This one, entitled “Strengthening and Empowering U.S. Amateur Athletes: Moving Forward with Solutions,” featured a first appearance by John Engler, the interim president of Michigan State, and repeat performances by Susanne Lyons, the acting CEO of the USOC, and Kerry Perry, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics. Han Xiao, the chair of the USOC Athlete Advisory Council also testified.
Ostensibly, today’s hearing was supposed to be somewhat forward looking in content—reviewing the changes that the organizations have instituted since the Nassar scandal first erupted and what they planned to do going forward. And in their opening statements and in some of their responses, they did get into the new policies and initiatives they’ve instituted. Perry touted USA Gymnastics’ new tracking software—go IT department!—and the fact that it established an athlete task force. Engler mentioned the $500 million settlement with Nassar survivors and improved practices at the Michigan State medical clinic, which was where the majority of survivors were abused by Nassar. Lyons talked about SafeSport.
But for the most part, the hearing was largely devoid of substance. The bad guys—Lyons, Engler, Perry—were there to be scolded, again, by members of Congress. There was an emotional payoff, to be sure, but the public didn’t learn much about what these leaders and institutions were actually doing to improve athlete safety and whether or not the changes had any chance of working.
In all fairness to the senators, this was Engler’s first appearance in front of the committee and it’s tough to resist berating a character like him, who actually disparaged a Nassar survivor in an email. He’s easy to loathe, and I don’t have an ounce of sympathy for him. He boldly proclaimed that another Nassar couldn’t possibly happen again at Michigan State and seemed frustrated that he wasn’t getting more credit for all that he accomplished.
But it was a questionable use of time by the committee to repeatedly go back to the issue of whether Engler really did make an offer of $250,000 to Nassar survivor Kaylee Lorincz without her lawyer present. Sen. Richard Blumenthal clearly wanted to get him to admit that he lied—Rachael Denhollander tweeted during the hearing that she has the receipts that support Lorincz’s account—but proving this seemed less urgent than the other issues on the table, like how to reform the entire Olympic movement.
The most useful testimony came from Xiao, who, in his submitted written testimony and his spoken testimony, offered the most complete analysis of the problems and the best solutions, including increased public administration of sports via a newly created position of Inspector General. He also had the most pointed criticism of Congress’ role in this whole disaster—namely its chartering of the USOC, and its granting of a monopoly power over Olympic sports to the USOC, followed by smaller monopolies with the national governing bodies. This has left athletes without any power. Their job is to train and compete while everyone else makes a buck off their work. The athletes, at best, get a ceremonial seat at the table.
So naturally, the senators directed very few questions to Xiao throughout the hearing. There was no point; they couldn’t berate him for the cameras as they could the other witnesses because Xiao hadn’t done anything wrong. And because he is totally innocent, he wasn’t on the defensive. Xiao was free to basically say, “The emperor has no clothes.” Or, in his words, “It’s a failing of the entire system, the way it’s set up.”
The failure of the system’s setup, this sort of fractured, semi-privatized yet public seeming network of national governing bodies, private training facilities, all underneath the umbrella of the USOC was fully in evidence at the end of the hearing.
Toward the end, Senator Jerry Moran spent several minutes grilling Perry about an Orange County Register article that describes coaches who are on the suspended list but still coaching at a gym in Southern California. Perry explained that when USAG learns about an open SafeSport investigation against one of its members, the organization can apply an interim suspension measure immediately. But then, due to the rights afforded to them in the Ted Stevens Act, the member can request a hearing to determine whether they suspension should be upheld. This is often done without any knowledge of the particulars of SafeSport’s investigation because the NGBs aren’t supposed to be involved in investigating sex abuse claims anymore. “The U.S. Center for SafeSport has jurisdiction but cannot tell us the facts in great detail,” Perry said.
Based on what happens in the interim suspension hearing, the NGB can either uphold the suspension, or lift it, or apply certain conditions. The matter, as Perry noted, won’t be fully resolved until the Center for SafeSport decides the matter, one way or the other.
“We have no idea how long it’s going to take,” Perry said of SafeSport’s investigation.
Moran moved the discussion into the realm of the hypothetical—what if SafeSport finds that a coach had really done something wrong? What will stop a club from hiring someone who had been sanctioned by SafeSport?
Perry explained that club owners are not allowed to hire anyone off the “permanently ineligible list” and that if a club does that, their membership can be revoked, which means they can’t participate in USA Gymnastics sanctioned event. But, she noted, they can still operate their businesses without membership.
When Perry said this, Moran looked down and paused for a moment. He seemed to have had no idea that the harshest penalty that USA Gymnastics could impose—the stripping of the membership of a gym that fails to comply with their policies—doesn’t even force the gym to shut down. It just means that the gym and its coaches can’t participate in USA Gymnastics sanctioned events. It can join the Amateur Athletic Union or any other organizations or just remain an independent that parents take their kids to at their own risk. (That did work for a long time for volleyball coach Rick Butler.)
Congress, which chartered the USOC and is tasked with oversight, has no idea how this thing they created actually works. And if they don’t know how it works, how will they fix it?
As Xiao noted, the athletes are rightly concerned about the Center for SafeSport’s independence from the USOC and member NGBs. Part of that concern stems from the funding model for SafeSport, which draws heavily on the USOC and member NGBs for cash. Right now, Congress has committed just $2.2 million to SafeSport as a grant, which means that the nonprofit has to expend time and resources applying for it. (And they have to apply to Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice office to get the money. Who better to help survivors of sexual violence?) By the standards of the federal government, this amount of money is basically change you find in the cushions of your couch. If those in power want the center to be truly independent of the institutions it oversees, there needs to be more public funding.
Over and over, senators have correctly emphasized how the USOC and USA Gymnastics put “money and medals” ahead of athlete well-being. Now it’s time for them to demonstrate just how much the well-being of these athletes and survivors, whom they have repeatedly lauded for their courage, actually means to them by investing money into that well-being they like to talk so much about.