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U.S. Senate passes bill for U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to better monitor abuse in amateur sports

ESPN | Dan Murphy

The U.S. Senate passed a bill on Tuesday afternoon that aims to put more responsibility on the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to monitor abuse in amateur sports.

The bill, if passed by the House of Representatives and signed into law, would increase the extent to which the USOPC is legally responsible for the safety and well-being of amateur athletes who compete under its purview. It also would require the USOPC to provide more power and funding to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an organization designed to independently investigate and adjudicate claims of abuse in amateur sports.

The legislation is the result of a Senate investigation that found the USOPC "failed to protect its athletes from sexual abuse" after the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal in gymnastics exposed cultural and systemic problems with the way many abuse claims were handled throughout Olympic sports. The USOPC has argued in federal lawsuits related to the Nassar case that the duty to care for athletes lies with the national governing bodies for individual sports rather than with the organization that oversees them. The bill, co-authored by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), would make it clear that both the USOPC and the national governing bodies are responsible for protecting athletes.

"No athlete, whether an amateur or an Olympian, should have to endure abuse and mistreatment to pursue the sport they love," Moran said on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon.

The bill requires all members of the USOPC to immediately report any allegations of child abuse to law enforcement and to make sure that national governing bodies do the same.

"We would like to thank Chairman Moran and Senator Blumenthal for their work in drafting and advancing this important legislation," the USOPC said in a statement. "It will cement increases in athlete representation in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic movements, improvements in athlete safety protections, and increases in transparency and accountability in our system. The USOPC board recently approved the second phase of the most sweeping governance reforms in recent history. Building on that commitment and this legislation, we will move rapidly to implement reforms to address any outstanding provisions from this bill."

"For years, USA Gymnastics and the USOPC tried to avoid responsibility for our abuse and put their own interests before those of athletes," said gold-medal-winning gymnast Aly Raisman in a statement provided by Moran's office. "They treated Larry Nassar like a PR problem, not a sexual abuse problem. USA Gymnastics and USOPC were happy to claim us when it benefited their bottom line, taking credit for medal performances and publishing ads with our photos, but not when we came forward to demand accountability for their culture of abuse. That stops now."

If the bill becomes law, the USOPC would also be required to provide $20 million to SafeSport on an annual basis -- nearly three times what it is currently providing to the investigative group. The USOPC board members are currently responsible for determining how much money SafeSport receives from the organization.

SafeSport leaders and supporters have consistently said the organization, which opened its doors in March 2017, is drastically underfunded. According to a financial report released earlier this week, the USOPC contributed $7.5 million to SafeSport in the past year. That money amounts to more than half of SafeSport's annual operating budget. The organization also receives money from individual national governing bodies and a federal grant, among other sources.

The $20 million annual payment equates to less than 10% of the money USOPC brings in during an Olympic year. In 2018, the USOPC reported $323 million in revenue. That number drops significantly during years in which no Olympic Games are played. In a financial report released earlier this week, the USOPC said it brought in $193 million in 2019 and spent nearly $250 million.

Blumenthal said the proposed law will help SafeSport do its work in a way that fortifies its independence.

"The USOPC should play no role in determining how much money the group in charge of investigating the organization's worst crime receives," Blumenthal said.

SafeSport has been dogged, though, by questions from athletes and their advocates who doubt the organization's independence and effectiveness as high-profile cases have vaulted the issue of sexual abuse and misconduct in sport into a matter of grave public concern.

Several prominent attorneys who have represented elite athletes in sexual abuse cases remain highly skeptical of SafeSport's ability to adequately address the problem of abuse in sports.

John Manly, an attorney whose firm represents many of the victims of Nassar, has emerged as SafeSport's fiercest -- but by no means only -- critic.

"SafeSport is an organization devoted to one thing: protecting the USOC," Manly told ABC News and ESPN in February. "Congress has to decide whether they're going to be complicit or not."

One of SafeSport's biggest challenges is arguably the distrust of the organization among some of the leading attorneys who represent the athletes who fall under its jurisdiction. Several of them, including Manly, told ABC News and ESPN that, as a rule, they recommend that their clients do not participate in SafeSport investigations or arbitration hearings.

In response to questions from ABC News and ESPN, SafeSport spokesperson Dan Hill defended the organization and its work.

"SafeSport and its employees are independent from the [U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] and [national governing bodies]. They do not report to those entities," Hill said. "The center has its own governance, oversight and policies. Since opening its doors ... 627 individuals have been sanctioned by the center, including high-profile athletes, coaches and figures in their sport."

Hill suggested that some of SafeSport's critics are "working to undermine the center's mission" for personal and professional gain, but he acknowledged "the right of parties to seek counsel and to pursue their own personal interests outside of sport."

"But we believe," he said, "those interests and ours can and should coexist."

The new legislation would put in place some new rules that attempt to codify more independence for the organization. For example, no previous employee or board member of the USOPC or any of the national governing bodies would be allowed to work for SafeSport for at least two years after working for one of those organizations. The bill would also make it illegal for any governing body to interfere with a SafeSport investigation and would require the USOPC to report any type of interference to Congress within three days of the incident.

The bill also attempts to address concerns about a backlog of investigations in the SafeSport system by requiring SafeSport to resolve all claims within 180 days of receiving them. Claimants would have the option to ask a federal court to rule on their complaint once their SafeSport case passed the 180-day limit.

The bill passed through the Senate on Tuesday with unanimous consent. It moves next to the House of Representatives.

"The passage of [this bill], among other things, reinforces the Center's independence and advances its mission of making athlete well-being the centerpiece of our nation's sports culture through abuse prevention, education, and accountability," SafeSport CEO Ju'Riese Colon said. "When people -- especially children -- are at risk of abuse, time is of the essence. Therefore, we urge the House of Representatives to pass this important legislation so it can be enacted into law as soon as possible."

Blumenthal also urged that the House should move forward quickly in hopes that the bill can become a law by the end of this congressional session.

"It's essential that our framework go into effect as soon as possible, and that athletes be given the protection they need and deserve," Blumenthal said. "The urgency of this task should be shared by the House. My hope is the survivors of this horrible abuse will see it happen during this session as soon as possible."