When USOC-sanctioned officials and coaches are accused of sexual assault -- who is responsible?
It has been about seven months since the Summer Olympics in Rio has ended, but the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) remains a hot-button subject.
Unfortunately, the discussion surrounding the USOC has nothing to do with gold medals or athletic feats. Instead, the attention is on sexual assault.
Last month, the Washington Post published an article that called into question the USOC's ability and desire to safeguard its athletes after former taekwondo coach Marc Gitelman was convicted of sexually abusing two female Olympic hopefuls under his tutelage. The article also noted that "since the 1980s about 150 Olympic coaches and officials have been convicted of sexual misconduct against minors, according to a review of coach ban lists, court records and news clips." And in addition to USA Taekwondo, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and US Speed Skating have all had reports of sexual abuse.
Indeed, the claims and confirmations of sexual abuse have been so alarming that they have prompted many U.S. senators to call USOC CEO Scott Blackmun for answers on what seems to be a historical inability of the universal governing organization to protect its athletes.
And maybe those calls are helping bring change into motion. Last week, after more than 18 years of service to USA Gymnastics, Steve Penny resigned as the organization's president and chief executive officer.
On Wednesday, former Michigan State University doctor Larry Nassar, who specialized in treating elite USA Gymnastics athletes, was charged with 22 new counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Hopefully, Nassar's conviction and Penny's resignation will signal a changing of the guard and an ushering in of sufficient policies on sexual abuse throughout the Olympic community.
The USOC has previously alleged that its federations are to blame -- that federal statutes, which require strict due process for accused abusers limit its ability to discipline officials and that it is doing all that it can to protect athletes' safety.
But what is the truth, what organization(s) hold the blame, and can more be done to protect young athletes? Here we provide legal-based insight on those very questions.
Whose job is it to protect athletes?
The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §220501 et seq. ("Act") establishes that the USOC is responsible for overseeing Olympic sports in the United States.
Structurally, the USOC essentially operates by regulating and supporting the 47 national governing bodies (NGB) that oversee each Olympic sport.
In instances of allegations of sexual assault, the USOC has argued that the NGBs and local clubs that employee coaches and officials are responsible for responding to claims of misconduct. That stance, however, is mere buck passing. One of the many statutory purposes of the USOC is "to protect the opportunity of any amateur athlete ... to participate in amateur athletic competition." It's not a tenuous argument that sexual abuse by one's coach or a sports official would hinder an athlete's ability to participate in the competition, yet the USOC places the burden on its NGBs. While the USOC may have delegated certain duties to its NGBs, it is ultimately the USOC's purpose to protect its athletes.
To be clear, no matter the USOC's response, the criminal and civil justice systems remain available to sexual assault survivors to seek recourse for crimes and torts committed against them.
Are the USOC's hands really tied?
Not really. The Act states that the USOC must afford coaches and officials "with fair notice and opportunity for a hearing." That leaves a great deal of leeway for the organization to ban predatory coaches and officials.
The USOC also claims the Act is void of any definitive mandate that governing bodies protect athletes from sexual assault. While that may be true, such an interpretation ignores the clear directive to protect athletes from discrimination based on sex; which, under Title IX and other federal statutes, includes protection from sexual misconduct.
What can the USOC do to protect its athletes?
Let's start with funding. In 2015, the USOC reported that it gave $51.4 million to 70 organizations, including its NGBs. Many of the contributions are based on performance, and the NGBs rely on that money to execute their missions. The USOC could make funding dependent on the NGBs establishment of standards (ones that meet the Act's broad requirements) for responding to claims of sexual misconduct. In my opinion, less funding is just the push the NGBs need to develop policies to protect its athletes.
Also, the USOC could require that NGBs establish sexual misconduct standards to earn recognition. A failure to be recognized would be a devastating sentence for any NGB.
Finally, just as California U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein has committed to doing, the USOC can lobby Congress to change the language of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. Since the Act's verbiage does not explicitly speak to sexual misconduct, the USOC could push for Congress to amend the Act to add language that makes them responsible for handling sexual misconduct claims within NGBs -- and that unequivocally calls for the removal of any individual determined to have harmed an athlete.
Yes, all of these are reasonable actions that the USOC can take to improve the safety of its young athletes. For its part, the USOC says that it has taken steps to improve the safety of its athletes through the establishment of the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, an independent nonprofit organization formed to address abuse in sport. The problem with Safe Sport is that it was supposed to begin operations in 2015. However, due to a reported lack of funding, the organization didn't commence services until March 2017. So as it stands, the USOC, in its more than 120 years of existence, has done little to nothing to provide wholesale protection from sexual assault for its athletes.
And that's a travesty.
Year after year, the USOC and its NGBs sell the dream of Olympic glory to children and families across the country. They offer the allure of athletic accomplishment and national pride. What they don't reveal is that their insufficient policies on sexual abuse could open the door for predators. But it must stop. The USOC owes it to the athletes to provide a safe environment for them to be the next generation of champions.
Cecelia Townes is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and the Real HU in Washington, D.C. She used to ball so hard on the tennis court. Now she serves it up on her blog, GladiatHers.com, and with student-athletes with Beyond the Game LLC. Follow Cecelia on Twitter & Instagram @SportyEsquire