Bill aimed at reshaping U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee passed by Senate

August 4, 2020
In The News

The governance structure of Olympic sports in the United States would receive renewed oversight aimed at protecting young athletes from the kind of abuse that roiled the gymnastics world and upended the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee under a bill approved Tuesday in the Senate.

The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic and Amateur Athletes Act passed the Senate by unanimous consent Tuesday. The bill, which was introduced in July 2019, had bipartisan support, and lawmakers are hopeful for a quick passage in the House.

The bill gives Congress the ability to dissolve the USOPC’s board of directors and to decertify individual sports’ governing bodies for their failures. It also calls for an oversight commission charged with a top-to-bottom examination of the USOPC and the 1978 Amateur Sports Act; aims to increase athlete representation in governing bodies; and calls for more funding and independence for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the government-created entity charged with policing and preventing sexual abuse in Olympic sports. 

“Despite the Olympics being postponed and everything that is going on around the world today, I’m grateful that we’re able to deliver good news and take this step today,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who co-sponsored the legislation, said on the Senate floor. “We are not done. We intend to keep that promise and get this bill across the finish line.”

After the legislation passed, USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland issued a statement thanking the senators for their work on “this important legislation.”

“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,” she said. “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.”

In the wake of the gymnastics sex abuse scandal involving team physician Larry Nassar, USOPC officials have made regular visits to Capitol Hill and the organization has taken on a series of overhaul measures, including many called for in the Senate bill. The organization has replaced its chief executive and its board chair and has striven to instill an athlete-first culture, increasing resources for its Athletes’ Advisory Council, boosting athlete representation on the board of directors and committees, and aiming for greater transparency.

On Monday, the organization released its annual financial report, which showed revenue of $194 million in 2019 with expenses at $248 million. The report captures a non-Olympic year and provides a dated snapshot, as the financial landscape has shifted dramatically since the novel coronavirus pandemic crippled most of the Olympic-related activity in March, including the postponement of the Tokyo Summer Games. Around 20 percent of the USOPC’s workforce was laid off or accepted voluntary separation packages, and Hirshland said the USOPC was trimming anticipated expenses by 10 to 20 percent over the next four years.

The bill calls for the USOPC to provide $20 million annually in funding for SafeSport, a significant increase for a nonprofit that receives no government funding. The USOPC contributed $7.5 million in 2019 and $11.5 million this year, and it had recently been urging Congress to help fund the center directly. The bill also calls for SafeSport to maintain a compliance office and make public a list of banned athletes, coaches and officials (which is available on the center’s website).

The legislation would give the comptroller general some oversight authority and charges that office with reviewing the center’s activities and ensuring its independence from other governing bodies.

The bill seeks to establish a 16-member Commission on the State of U.S. Olympics and Paralympics that would be charged with reviewing the USOPC and the governance of Olympic sports in the United States. All commission members would be congressionally appointed and given nine months to issue a report to Congress on their findings.

In addition, the legislation calls on the USOPC to annually conduct a survey of athletes and to present a full report of its activities to Congress and the White House each year.

 

“The bill that we passed today provides for enforcement and deterrence, and it gives Congress essential oversight tools to ensure that the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and [national governing bodies] will comply with the heightened statute,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), another co-sponsor. “No one in these organizations can possibly claim ignorance now of the duty to report these heinous crimes. And if they try, Congress has the ability and responsibility to intervene.”

On Tuesday afternoon, a companion bill was formally introduced in the House, sponsored by Reps. Ted W. Lieu (D-Calif.), Susan Brooks (R-Ind.), John Curtis (R-Utah) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

“When people — especially children — are at risk of abuse, time is of the essence,” Ju’Riese Colón, chief executive of SafeSport, said in a statement. “Therefore, we urge the House of Representatives to pass this important legislation so it can be enacted into law as soon as possible.”

 

The bill has the endorsement of two influential advocacy groups: the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, and U.S. Olympians and Paralympians Unbroken, which circulated a letter last month to lawmakers in support of the bill. The letter was signed by nearly 500 Olympians, Paralympians and elite athletes and 194 coaches, among others.

“For too long, the wrong people held all the power — now, it’s back in the hands of the athletes, where it belongs,” said gymnast McKayla Maroney, a gold medalist at the 2012 Olympics. “This bill recognizes that USOC failed us, and put child athletes at risk. I am grateful to the Senate for passing this bill, and look forward to see the House of Representatives take the next step to hold the leadership of USOPC fully accountable for their failures.”