Senators' bill designed to protect young athletes

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee will be forced to take much more responsibility -- financial and otherwise -- in protecting young athletes if a new bill, proposed by a pair of U.S. senators Tuesday morning, becomes law.

The new legislation, dubbed the Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act and introduced by Senators Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), is designed in hopes of giving athletes a bigger voice in the governance of Olympic sports and making the USOPC more accountable for monitoring and stopping abusive behavior.

The bill would require the USOPC to provide $20 million each year -- more than triple its current contribution -- to fund the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an organization tasked with investigating reports of abuse in Olympic sports.

The senators lead a subcommittee that started investigating abuse in Olympic sports 18 months ago in the immediate aftermath of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing for abusing hundreds of his patients. Blumenthal said the USOPC has "taken some baby steps" in its efforts for reform since then, "but nowhere near the kind of major reform that needs to be done."

The USOPC was one of several institutions sued by assault survivors and widely criticized by politicians and others for its failure to heed warning signs of abuse. The organization commissioned its own investigative review, which found neglect from high-ranking individuals and problematic policies created a harmful, hands-off approach to responding to troubling allegations.

"It will be a test of their commitment to turning the page and bringing in a new era," Blumenthal said of the proposed legislation. "That era must be a massive, seismic cultural shift."

The U.S. Center for SafeSport opened in March 2017 to adjudicate claims of abuse made against members of any of the dozens of national governing bodies that run the sports under the USOPC's purview. The Center has struggled to keep up with an increasing number of abuse reports in the past three years. Its leaders have regularly asked the USOPC, national governing bodies and congress for more funding.

The USOPC has earmarked $6.2 million for the Center for SafeSport in 2019, which makes up more than half of the investigative body's $11.3 million budget. Federal funding is contributing $2.2 million to SafeSport's budget over the course of the next three years in the form of a federal grant.

The $20 million proposal from Moran and Blumenthal equates to 6% of the $323 million in revenue the USOPC reported in 2018. The payment would take a larger percentage of the USOPC's revenue in years when no Olympic games take place.

"Changing culture is a team effort, which is why we are appreciative of the hard work of Senators Blumenthal and Moran and their commitment to empowering all participants and putting their well-being above everything else," the Center for SafeSport said in a statement. "To accomplish this, we must make sure athletes voices are heard, hold accountable those who cross the line, and ensure that comprehensive prevention policies and implementation strategies exist to prevent abuse in the first place.

"The Center has long emphasized the need for additional resources to support this vitally important work and this legislation is an important step in our collective efforts to keep athletes safe and protect their voice."

Athletes and advocates have previously expressed concerns about SafeSport's ability to maintain its independence and avoid conflicts of interest if it had to pursue claims made against powerful coaches or administrators within the Olympic movement.

Moran and Blumenthal said making those funds a legal mandate and making the amount of money consistent from one year to the next would help avoid a situation where SafeSport investigators felt their future funding was dependent on the USOPC's approval of their actions.

"There is a stability and certainty in this funding mechanism that makes it independent," Moran said. "A secure and stable source of funding is very important."

The proposed bill also contains other measures to try to ensure SafeSport's independence, including a requirement that SafeSport employees report any potential attempts to interfere with their work to Congress. The bill would also Congress the power to dissolve the USOPC's board and decertify national governing bodies if they fail to follow the new rules.

In a statement issued from Blumenthal's communications office, former Olympic gymnast and Nassar survivor Jordyn Wieber thanked the senators for taking "bold action to hold the US Olympic Committee accountable" for their failures.

"Olympic athletes dream of standing on the podium and listening to our national anthem. We have the right to expect that our United States Olympic Committee will protect all athletes, especially children," said McKayla Maroney, a member of the American women's gymnastics team that was dubbed the Fierce Five at the 2012 Summer Olympics, where she won a gold medal in the team and an individual silver medal in the vault event. "This bill recognizes that USOC failed us and put child athletes at risk. Congress should pass this bill as soon as possible and hold the leadership of USOC accountable for their failures."

Other items proposed in the new legislation include mandating that the USOPC maintain a public list of all coaches who have been banned for abusive behavior, increasing the percent of athletes who sit on the USOPC board from 20 percent to 33 percent, bolstering the role of an athlete's ombudsman (a position that Moran and Blumenthal say failed to provide good support and advice to athletes during the Nassar scandal) and more frequent congressional audits to make sure the organization isn't enriching its leaders at the expense of providing proper care for its athletes.

Moran and Blumenthal said their proposal comes as a result of 18 months of subcommittee hearings and interviews with involved parties. They said they are optimistic that the bill will receive bipartisan support and that they plan to continue investigating and monitoring the USOC's progress in establishing a new culture in the future.