Olympic Reform Legislation Promises To Better Protect Athletes From Abuse

Oct 7, 2020 - 8:12 AM

On Oct. 1, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020, sweeping new reform legislation that would provide congressional oversight of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, increase athlete representation at the USOPC and at national governing bodies, and provide additional funding for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, among other changes.

The bill, prompted by the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal in gymnastics, was passed by the Senate in August and awaits the president’s signature to become law.

The legislation was first introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the U.S. Senate Commerce Subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over the health and safety of U.S. Olympic, Paralympic and amateur athletes. It followed an 18-month bipartisan Senate investigation into systemic abuse within the U.S. Olympic movement, launched the day after Nassar was sentenced to prison.

“The very institutions charged with protecting these athletes failed countless times, choosing to ignore or cover up abuse rather than defend and protect athletes and survivors,” the senators said in a joint statement. The legislation advances “critical changes and effective safeguards to protect our Olympic, Paralympic and amateur athletes. Through the input and guidance of the courageous survivors—athletes who traveled to Washington, shared their stories and demanded change—we were able to advance this legislation through Congress.”

The bill establishes a 16-member bipartisan commission, appointed by Congress, that will have subpoena power and will conduct a full review of the USOPC. It will have nine months to report its findings to Congress for possible further action. At least half the members of the commission would be current or former athletes. The commission was not part of the Senate bill when it was first introduced, but was proposed by Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Diana DeGette, both of Colorado, where the USOPC is headquartered.

“The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 will ensure a new standard of transparency and accountability for the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and National Governing Bodies within the United States, importantly, providing stronger protections and representation for athletes participating in sport under USOPC administration,” the U.S. Equestrian Federation said in a statement. “The Act mandates an increase of athlete representation from 20 percent to 33.3 percent on the Board of Directors and committees. Currently, four of the 19 seats on the USEF Board are dedicated to athlete representatives.

“The USEF Governance Committee and the [Athletes Advisory Committee] are working on a proposal for the Board’s consideration as to a restructure that will increase the athlete representation to 33.3 percent, or seven of the 19 Board seats,” continued the statement. “Additionally, the Governance Committee and AAC are looking at a committee restructure that incorporates at least 33.3 percent athlete representation on all USEF committees. The athletes play a critical role in the governance of the sport and we look forward to increased athlete engagement.”

The legislation also establishes legislative mechanisms by which Congress can dissolve the USOPC’s board of governors and decertify national governing bodies for individual sports, gives Congress the ability to provide better oversight by bolstering USOPC auditing and reporting requirements, and protects individuals who report emotional, physical or sexual abuse of an athlete from retaliation within the Olympic movement.

In addition, the bill increases the amount of funding the USOPC must provide to the U.S. Center for SafeSport. The center received $7.5 million in 2019 and $11.5 million in 2020, but will now receive $20 million annually.

“The U.S. Center for SafeSport fully supports the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 and applauds its passage by the House,” said Ju’Riese Colón, chief executive officer of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, in a statement.

“This important legislation, among other things, prioritizes athlete safety and reinforces the Center’s independence, ensuring athletes can continue to have a centralized, safe, and confidential place to report abuse and misconduct,” Colón continued. “By providing consistent funding, this bill also will sustain the Center’s ongoing work to put athlete well-being at the center of the nation’s sport culture.”

The Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOPC, an advocacy group comprised of athletes, coaches, sexual abuse survivors and other sport leaders, lobbied Congress to ensure passage of the bill.

“Our goal has always been simple: to get changes to the Sports Act so that someone like Larry Nassar or Scott Blackmun [former chief executive of the USOPC, who allegedly knew about the allegations against Nassar] can’t happen again, so that athletes’ seat at the table—their authority—is part of the architecture of the Olympic Movement. The changes embedded in S. 2330 to the Sports Act were necessary to empower our athletes to come forward, to report abuse, and to remove those abusers from the Olympic Movement,” the group said in a statement.

“The numbers speak for themselves. The U.S. Center for SafeSport has only been in existence for three and a half years and has received over 4,000 reports of abuse. We are aware of several groups of athletes that cannot publicly come forward and make reports of abuse because it will cost them a spot on America’s Olympic or Paralympic Team,” the statement continued.

“With these changes, athletes will benefit from the enforcement of boundaries and professional standards for athletes and those in power, protections for whistle blowers, budget allocation for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and more.”

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland supported the bill’s passage in a statement.

“Team USA athletes had a big win in the halls of Congress,” Hirshland said. “[The legislation] will cement increases in athlete representation in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements, improvements in athlete safety protections, and bolster transparency and accountability in our system.

“The USOPC board has already approved two of the most sweeping governance reform updates in recent history, and a third phase is before the board this fall,” Hirshland continued. “This legislation codifies many of those reforms, with the USOPC now positioned to move quickly to address any outstanding provisions and support the work of the Commission. This bill underscores the value and necessity of the athlete voice and engagement in building stronger, and better, Olympic and Paralympic movements for current and future generations.”

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