Senators introduce bill to hold U.S. Olympic sports accountable after sex scandals

- in World News

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee failed to protect athletes during a spate of recent sex abuse scandals and now must face an Act of Congress to help make sure it never happens again, according to a damning 18-month investigation by two U.S. senators.

Their solution is legislation that will overhaul the oversight of the Olympic movement and even give Congress the power to fire the people in charge of it.

Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) planned to introduce the bill Tuesday after determining the USOPC and various national governing bodies in Olympic sports essentially “turned a blind eye” to these problems, especially with convicted child molester Larry Nassar, the former national team doctor for USA Gymnastics.

Nassar “was not a lone wolf,” Blumenthal said. “He was enabled and emboldened by people in positions of trust who looked the other way in the face of this crushing, ongoing, vile evil. The institutions and individuals failed those athletes. We’re now at a moment of reckoning.”

Their bill seeks to drastically change a culture that valued “medals and money” above morals and athlete safety. It increases the accountability of the USOPC and the 50 national governing bodies, which previously often operated as independent, separate fiefdoms in charge of their individual sports.

Among the highlights:

►The bill states that Congress can dissolve the USOPC’s board of directors if it finds that it is failing to fulfill its purposes as described in the Amateur Sports Act. “It will be disbanded by Congress if they fail to fulfill their responsibilities,” Blumenthal said.

►The bill would require $20 million in annual funding from the USOPC to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is tasked with investigating claims of sex abuse in Olympic sports and punishing those found responsible. SafeSport opened in 2017 and currently gets only about $6 million from the USOPC.

►The bill would increase athlete representation in the governance of the USOPC and national governing bodies. It proposes to raise the minimum threshold for membership and voting power held by amateur athletes from 20% to 33.3%.

►The bill would require SafeSport to publish and maintain a publicly available website that contains a comprehensive list of individuals who are barred from the USOPC or a national governing body. Moran’s and Blumenthal’s legislative recommendations cited a USA TODAY investigation published in December that found several cases of coaches who were banned for misconduct but still coaching kids. The lack of a comprehensive list made it easier for them to keep coaching in plain sight.

►The bill also requires the USOPC to review national governing bodies at least every four years and renew its recognition of the NGBs based on those reviews.

“No longer would the (USOPC) be able to say, `That’s an NGB issue,’” Moran said. “It is now made clear they have oversight over those national governing bodies in these circumstances.”

The USOPC moved to decertify one of those NGBS last year, USA Gymnastics, in response to the scandal involving Nassar, who was accused by more than 350 women of molesting them under the guise of medical treatment. But USA Gymnastics filed for bankruptcy as it faced dozens of sex-abuse lawsuits — a move that delayed the decertification process. The new bill would close that loophole and states that decertification proceedings initiated by the USOPC are not subject to an automatic stay because of a bankruptcy filing.

Moran and Blumenthal are the chair and ranking member of the subcommittee that oversees the USOPC and amateur sports. They and their staff began investigating in early 2018 and heard from sexual abuse survivors in different sports, including those abused by Nassar. Their bill is entitled the “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019.” It would amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1998.

 “This is legislating the way it used to be: bipartisan investigation and then thoughtful careful drafting of a new proposal,” Blumenthal said.

They expect it to receive additional bipartisan support and ultimately get signed into law. Two other lawmakers in Colorado also have pushed legislation that would create a commission to look into the USOPC.

Blumenthal said that separate measure “will just mean more time will pass before these reforms can be adopted” and said his bill with Moran is “pretty comprehensive.”

In a related move, Moran and Blumenthal last year asked the Justice Department to investigate whether former USOPC chief executive Scott Blackmun lied in his Senate testimony about his handling of the Nassar scandal.  A report last year said Blackmun knew about the allegations against Nassar more than a year before they became public but didn’t act on it. In recent weeks, a financial report revealed that Blackmun received $2.4 million in severance pay.

“If there were any way for the U.S. Olympic Committee to avoid this payment, they should have or should now make use of it, because it’s inexplicable and inexcusable,” Blumenthal said in a conference call with reporters. “Blackmun in effect was one of the poster boys for what went wrong here.”

Among other things, the Blumenthal-Moran bill bolsters the office of Athlete Ombudsman to provide independent advice to reporting parties with respect to SafeSport issues.  It strengthens reporting and audit requirements of the USOPC to Congress and the president, including requiring such reporting to take place annually instead of every four years. It also seeks to strengthen the independence of the Center for SafeSport, in part by requiring the center to report to Congress within 72 hours any attempt to interfere with its work by the USOPC or a national governing body.

Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber praised the bill in a statement. She was among those abused by Nassar.

“On behalf of all members of Team USA, I thank Senators Moran and Blumenthal and the members of their subcommittee for listening to the voices of survivors and taking bold action to hold the US Olympic Committee accountable for their failure to protect athletes from physical, emotional and sexual abuse,” Wieber said. “Stronger oversight by Congress and a truly independent Center for SafeSport is necessary to restore public confidence in our Olympic organizations and protect the health and safety of athletes who strive to represent the highest values of our nation.”

Source: USA Today.

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