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Congress responds to an Olympic cry for help with oversight hammer

Sens. Moran and Blumenthal want legislative action this fall

Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, a survivor of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, here at a July 2018 press conference on Capitol Hill, is among the abuse victims seeking action to protect future athletes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, a survivor of sexual abuse by Larry Nassar, here at a July 2018 press conference on Capitol Hill, is among the abuse victims seeking action to protect future athletes. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call file photo)

With less than a year before the world gathers to ignite the Olympic flame in Tokyo for the 2020 summer games, two senators are pushing legislation that would provide the most significant congressional oversight in a generation of the board governing U.S. participation.

Spurred by numerous allegations from Olympic athletes of sexual abuse, a bill by Sens. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, would make it easier for Congress to effectively fire members of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, or to decertify a governing body like USA Gymnastics in response to future scandals.

Reports of a Justice Department investigation of U.S. Olympic sports entities, along with multiple probes by state attorneys general are only likely to increase the incentive for the Senate to take legislative action. The Wall Street Journal first reported the Justice Department’s interest, and the Washington Post detailed the inquiries under way by state officials in California and Indiana.

In effect, Moran and Blumenthal want to be able to fire the sports governing bodies if they are unable to protect athletes from sexual abuse in the future, and they have designed a method with assistance from experts at the Congressional Research Service and elsewhere that they hope will accomplish that.

The bill from the leaders of the Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee with Olympic oversight authority would create an expedited procedure for stripping national governing bodies, like USA Gymnastics or USA Soccer, of their recognition. It also would enhance reporting requirements and increase the USOPC’s legal liabilities in abuse cases.

The idea, roughly modeled on the Congressional Review Act but with different vote thresholds, would guarantee a supermajority of senators could get a vote on a joint resolution that could either dissolve the Board of Directors of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee or terminate the federal recognition of a sport’s national governing board. That move would nullify its ability to form an Olympic team.

Molly Reynolds, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in expedited procedures, says one of the most interesting parts of the bill is a provision allowing the full Senate to take up such a resolution if the Commerce Committee deadlocks, but only if it has support from 60 senators.

Aides say they hope the governing bodies get the message about the importance of protecting athletes and that a joint resolution will never be necessary, but the two senators made clear when the bill was introduced that they think it’s a necessary tool.

Li Li Leung, the president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call that the organization understood the role of Congress in protecting athletes.

“We pledge to become a community of education, prevention and care, and acknowledge and accept that we need to and can do better for our athletes and the community as a whole,” she said. “We respect the survivors’ courage and strength in sharing their stories, and our goal is to do everything we can to prevent the opportunity for it to happen again.”

“Congress has the authority and is charged with oversight of the USOPC. We look forward to working with Congress, the USOPC and all groups as needed so that USA Gymnastics, and the entire Olympic movement, puts athlete safety and well-being first,” Leung said.

 Blumenthal and Moran are hopeful for full Commerce Committee consideration this fall, but there could be obstacles. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland applauded the congressional interest but expressed some general concerns about the legislation.

“There are sections in the proposed legislation that, while conceptually appropriate, could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes,” Hirshland said in a statement. “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.”

Aside from the joint resolution authority, the measure would bolster resources for the U.S. Center for SafeSport through a $20 million mandatory contribution by the USOPC. The center provides training related to sexual misconduct and investigates allegations against people associated with the various national governing bodies.

If the legislation stalls, it would be no surprise to see some Olympic medalists and other victims of abuse back in the Capitol over the course of the rest of the year.

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Revisiting a Senate report

A congressional report released this summer provided the pathway to the bill introduction.

Running 253 pages, including appendices filled with damning emails and other correspondence, it may be the most comprehensive look yet at the failure of the Olympic committee to protect young athletes from the likes of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University team doctor who pleaded guilty to state charges of sexual abuse after accusations of abusing more than 200 young athletes.

With their staff, Moran and Blumenthal spent about 18 months diving into the pattern of abuse of young athletes and the failure of governing bodies to respond.

Senior Senate aides said one of the most poignant moments came in July 2018 at a news conference in the Kennedy Caucus Room, where more than 80 survivors of Nassar’s abuse gathered and spoke, passing a microphone to identify themselves to the lawmakers and media present. Each identified the duration of their abuse by Nassar and repeating that “USOC, USAG and Michigan State” failed to protect any of them.

“Standing behind me, and beside me, is not even one-third of all survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse,” Jordyn Wieber, an Olympic gymnast who participated in the 2012 London summer games, said at the news conference. “The governing bodies whose job it was to protect us failed to do so. They perpetuated a culture of abuse, neglect and a win-at-all-costs mentality, which affected each survivor here today.”

In crafting the legislation, the two senators have sought to navigate a perilous thicket of jurisdictional and legal matters, not to mention the emotional weight of a system that failed the people it was supposed to protect.

Subcommittee investigators looked at tens of thousands of pages of documents, according to the report, and the hearings included moving accounts and remarks from victims. Now the senators involved are looking for a chance to get tangible results well before next summer’s Olympic games.

 “It’s the survivors,” Moran said in an MSNBC interview touting the bill introduction. “It’s the athletes who came before our committee, who appeared with us, who spoke of their stories, who told what happened to them, and their courage is what then requires, enables, insists that we respond by making certain that there is a result from their courageous actions.” 

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