In the News
Jul 30 2019
Orange County Register
Scott M. Reid
Describing it as a response to the American Olympic movement’s failure to protect young athletes from sexual abuse, the U.S. Senate will introduce bi-partisan legislation on Tuesday that would give Congress the power to terminate the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee board of directors and decertify the national governing bodies for Olympic sports.
The Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019 co-authored by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) would not only dramatically increase Congressional oversight over the USOPC and the 50 NGBs under its umbrella but would also require the USOPC to contribute $20 million annually to the U.S. Center for SafeSport and mandate that the Center publicly list all individuals barred from USOPC-sanctioned sport for sexual and physical abuse.
The legislation follows an 18-month investigation led by Moran and Blumenthal into the USOPC, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and other NGBs in the wake of the Larry Nassar and USA Swimming sex abuse scandals.
If adopted, the legislation would constitute a major overhaul of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1978 which gave the USOPC monopoly status for governing and promoting American Olympic sports and established NGBs for each sport.
The bill and the findings of the Senate investigation also combine to provide both a damning rebuke of the USOPC and its NGBs, especially USA Gymnastics’ decades-long ignoring, concealment, and in some case enabling sexual abuse and a warning if those organizations failure change their culture of abuse. The investigation also states that inaction by the FBI failed to protect young athletes.
“The best way for the (USOPC) and governing boards to show they are serious is for them to support this legislation,” Blumenthal said. “It will be a test of their commitment to turning a new page and begin a new era. It must mean a massive seismic cultural shift. It must empower and embolden the athletes without fear of retaliation.
“The (USOPC) will be disbanded by Congress if they fail to fulfill their responsibilities. This legislation is an important step, but not the end of the path by any means.”
USOPC Sarah Hirshland said in a statement that the organization would cooperate with the Senate.
“Improving athlete safety and voice in our country’s Olympic and Paralympic community, and increasing accountability for the organizations that make up that community, are central to the initiatives and reform that we began in February 2018 – these are ongoing today,” Hirshland said. “This legislation is consistent with that approach and we applaud Congress for their continued work on this critically important issue. There are sections in the proposed legislation that, while conceptually appropriate, could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality. We look forward to working with Senators Moran, Blumenthal and others in Congress to address these areas, make athletes more safe, and make Olympic and Paralympic organizations in the U.S. as exceptional as the athletes they serve.”
The bill, in its call for immediate action, goes beyond legislation introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Col.) in January that would create a 16-member panel selected by Congress to evaluate the USOPC.
“Our measure is pretty comprehensive,” Blumenthal said. “Their idea for a commission would contemplate work that our subcommittee has already done over the last 18 months, and that would mean more time would pass before anything could be adopted. The comprehensiveness of our approach argues for adopting it intact.”
The Moran and Blumenthal bill also has widespread support among Nassar’s survivors.
“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,” said Jordyn Wieber, an Olympic gymnastics gold medalist and Nassar survivor.
The Moran and Blumenthal bill also aims to create a more athlete-centric USOPC and NGBs. The legislation requires the percentage of athletes on the boards of the USOPC and NGBs to increase from 20 percent to 33 percent.
The USOPC is a tax-exempt non-profit organization based in Colorado Springs. It reported revenues of $322.8 million in 2018 with expenses of $275.1 million, according to filings with the Internal Revenue service and financial statements. The USOPC received $36.7 million from donors in 2018, its most successful fundraising period to date.
Echoing the findings of a 2018 USOPC-commissioned investigation by Ropes & Gray, a national law firm, and a series of media investigations into USOPC and its NGBs, the Moran and Blumenthal report “found that coaches and powerful individuals within the Olympic movement were able to assault young athletes because of a lack of oversight, independence, and transparency, and that, ultimately, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has failed to protect its athletes from sexual abuse.”
“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. These people and institutions failed those athletes.”
The legislation would provide Congress legal mechanisms to terminate the USOPC board and decertify NGBs if they continue to fail to address sexual and physical abuse.
“The legislation is increasing a significant oversight opportunity for Congress. That is important,” Moran said. “Auditing and reporting to Congress is increased. It is important to athletes and in management of funding. It gives Congress the opportunity to respond with dissatisfaction with what we see from USOC.”
Moran and Blackmun referred former USOPC chief executive Scott Blackmun to the Department of Justice and FBI last December for criminal investigation for making false statements and misleading Congress.
The USOPC gave Blackmun a $2.4 million buy-out after he was forced to resign in 2018 amid allegations he was involved in the cover-up of sexual abuse by U.S. Olympic and women’s gymnastics national team physician Larry Nassar, according to financial documents released by the organization earlier this month.
The pay-out to Blackmun, who resigned in February 2018 citing health reasons, was more than what nearly 50 national governing bodies individually received in funding from the USOC last year. Only U.S. Skiing and Snowboard ($6 million), USA Track & Field ($3.99 million), and USA Swimming ($3.4 million) received more funding than Blackmun’s buyout. USA Gymnastics received $2.2 million from the USOC last year.
“Blackmun was one of the poster boys for what went wrong here,” Blumenthal said. “He put medals and money above morals. He put reputations of individuals and institutions above young athletes’ lives. To reward this kind of conduct in my view is gravely improper. We have referred him for criminal prosecution and there may be means to claw back that money. There may be other means as well.”
The act would require greater USOPC oversight of the NGBs and provide the USOPC additional measures to discipline the organizations.
“It also makes clear, the confusing issue, that the USOPC has responsibility for the behavior of the NGBs,” Moran said. “They can’t say ‘well, that is an NGB issue.’ It is now made clear the USOPC has oversight of NGBs in these circumstances.”
The legislation would also strip NGBs of protection from decertification while in bankruptcy proceedings. The USOPC began decertification proceeding against USA Gymnastics last year. Decertification was put on hold when USA Gymnastics filed for Chapter 11 protection in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in December.
“USA Gymnastics is rotten to the core,” Blumenthal said. “The kind of decay that occurred in that organization should be prevented going forward.”
USOPC and U.S. Center for SafeSport officials have repeatedly acknowledged that the USOPC created and financed Center has been understaffed and underfunded since it opened in March 2017.
In addition to requiring $20 million in annual funding from the USOPC, the legislation also calls for a prohibition of former USOPC and NGB employees and officials from working for the Center for two years from the date they left the previous organization.
“With further dollars funding SafeSport, we continue to believe that USOC can do more to support that effort, and that is the reason for additional financial support,” Moran said. “The USOC has a lot to gain in that all athletes are treated appropriately.”
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