In the News
USA Today: Op-ed: We investigated Nassar abuse of gymnasts. Here's how to make sure it never happens again.
Jul 30 2019
We stood in the Russell Senate Office Building last year with more than 80 courageous survivors of sexual abuse by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar. Some of these women had been assaulted by Nassar while competing at the Olympics, some while training with the national team, others while attending Michigan State University. One by one, they told us the organizations that were supposed to protect them had failed them.
Nassar committed his criminal sexual conduct by himself, but his unimaginable abuse could have and should have been stopped earlier by powerful people who chose not to act. Multiple institutions responsible for keeping amateur athletes safe, including the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Gymnastics (USAG) and Michigan State University (MSU) repeatedly failed to act on credible reports against Nassar. Their inaction allowed Nassar to continue assaulting his patients with impunity.
Nassar was ultimately sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for his heinous crimes. But the fight to overhaul a system that had allowed him to evade justice and accountability was far from over.
Dysfunctional systems enabled Nassar
For the past few years, we have been determined to change this pattern of gross institutional failure. As chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce subcommittee with jurisdiction over the health and safety of U.S. Olympic athletes, we have been honored to work side-by-side with these remarkable athletes, survivors and advocates to prevent future athletes from enduring this kind of abuse.
Our investigation had two goals from the start. First, we wanted to understand the alarming and dysfunctional systems that allowed Nassar to Why did officials at the U.S. Olympics Committee, USA Gymnastics, MSU and the FBI ignore evidence of Nassar’s sexual misconduct? How was he allowed to continue treating athletes for years after these institutions received complaints? Second, we wanted to take what we learned and craft legislation that would help protect and empower amateur athletes going forward.
Culture of abuse in amateur sports
Over the past 18 months, we engaged with athletes and sexual abuse survivors in a wide range of sports – including wrestling, figure skating and tae kwon do. We dug into the way these sporting bodies and the U.S. Olympic Committee operate – reviewing and analyzing tens of thousands of pages of documentary evidence.
We held public hearings on the culture of abuse in amateur sports, and subpoenaed leaders who tried to evade accountability for their failure to protect athletes.
During the course of our work, we uncovered damning evidence showing misconduct by leaders at the Olympic committee, USA Gymnastics and MSU. As a result, we referred the former USOC CEO to the Department of Justice for lying to Congress. His account of his actions to our subcommittee was inconsistent with the findings of USOC’s independent investigators.
Our investigation concluded that coaches and powerful individuals within the Olympic movement were able to assault athletes of all ages because of a lack of oversight and transparency.
Repeatedly, institutions failed to act aggressively to report wrongdoing to proper law enforcement agencies. Repeatedly, men and women entrusted with positions of power prioritized their own reputation or the reputation of a national governing body over the health and safety of the athletes. Repeatedly, USOC, USAG and other NGBs took actions to conceal their negligence and failed to enact serious reforms, even after they were faced with the courageous accounts of survivors. And, repeatedly, athletes were left in harm’s way.
Athletes and accountability first
Our legislation would change that and empower and protect Olympic and amateur athletes through three key reforms:
- Implement a culture in which athletes and their best interests are put first. This includes new reporting requirements for adults with knowledge of any allegation of child abuse of an amateur athlete, and increased protections for survivors from retaliation. It also mandates higher representation of amateur athletes on the boards of the USOC and other national governing bodies.
- Ensure greater transparency and accountability throughout the amateur sports movement. This includes giving Congress the ability to fire the USOC board of directors. USOC would be required to maintain a public list of all barred coaches and individuals, so that these predators may not slyly manipulate their way back into amateur sports. Most important, this legislation clarifies that USOC and the national governing bodies owe a duty of care to amateur athletes to keep promoting a safe environment in sports.
- Fortify the independence and capabilities of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the body responsible for investigating allegations of sexual abuse against athletes and coaches. It would prevent anyone affiliated with USOC or the national governing bodies to work for or interfere with SafeSport’s investigations, and require USOC to spend $20 million per year on center operations.
As we have written in our report, we have been moved by the incredible courage of the survivors of abuse who have shared their stories with us and the world. We draw strength and motivation from their unwavering commitment to work with Congress to prevent the abuse of any young athlete in the future, and thank them for putting their trust in us. We are officially one year out from the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games, we will get this bill across the finish line – for them, and for all future athletes, so that they may be able to participate in the sport they love without fear of abuse.
View the full op-ed here.