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Senator Dianne Feinstein calls for changes to Olympic sports law to protect children from abuse

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) thinks the law that governs Olympic sports organizations in America leaves child athletes at risk of abuse. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) announced Wednesday she is crafting legislation to amend the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations in America, triggering potentially far-reaching changes in how the organizations that put together the United States’ Olympic teams deal with allegations of sexual abuse that arise from their ranks of tens of thousands of local coaches, and millions of child athletes across the country.

Feinstein’s recommended changes to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act comes amid an ongoing abuse scandal roiling USA Gymnastics. Like many of the 47 Olympic governing bodies, USA Gymnastics both trains and selects the athletes who compete for Team USA in international competitions, and also credentials coaches and local clubs to work with aspiring Olympians across the country.

An athlete accused her coach of sex abuse. Olympic officials stayed on the sideline.

Feinstein’s legislation, according to a member of her office, would require anyone affiliated with an Olympic governing body to report immediately to law enforcement all allegations of sexual abuse; create procedures to prevent coaches leaving one club under the suspicion of abuse from getting jobs at other clubs, and clarify language in the Ted Stevens Act that has been interpreted by lawyers to afford coaches suspected of sexual abuse more rights than they would have if they worked in other industries.

The Ted Stevens Act requires an Olympic governing body give fair notice, due process and a hearing to any member athlete, coach, or official it wants to ban; requirements that have sometimes prevented governing bodies from banning coaches suspected of abuse. Other youth-serving organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, have policies requiring swift actions when abuse is suspected, always erring in favor of protecting children from harm.

Originally passed by Congress in 1978, then amended in 1998, the Ted Stevens Act — named after the late Alaska Senator — sets the basic framework and requirements for Olympic sports organizations, from the United States Olympic Committee to individual sport governing bodies such as USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics, and USA Track and Field.

Originally intended to clear up disputes over the management and selection of Team USA, the Ted Stevens Act’s reach has expanded over the years as Olympic governing bodies have offered coach, club, and athlete memberships across the country. More than 8 million children participate in sports under the umbrella of Olympic organizations, according to governing body estimates.

USA Gymnastics has been accused in lawsuits of leaving child athletes at risk of abuse both on its national team and at member clubs across the country. Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics’ former longtime physician, has been accused by more than 60 gymnasts, including at least three former members of Team USA, of sexually assaulting them during medical procedures, according to lawyers for victims. Dozens of victims have sued USA Gymnastics, alleging negligence by allowing Nassar to examine them one-on-one, without another adult in the room.

Separately, a lawsuit filed by the victim of a local coach in Georgia has produced evidence USA Gymnastics officials failed to notify law enforcement of complaints of a sexual nature against the coach, who was later convicted of sexual exploitation of children. Assault allegations against Nassar, who now faces of dozens of criminal charges of sexual assault of children in Michigan, and the Georgia case were first reported by the Indianapolis Star.

USA Gymnastics has denied allegations of wrongdoing in the lawsuits, and said it prompted an FBI investigation of Nassar in 2015, five weeks after an athlete came forward. In response to the Georgia case, USA Gymnastics has cited the Ted Stevens Act for its decision not to ban the coach because, while other gym owners alleged the coach made sexually suggestive comments about children, USA Gymnastics did not receive a formal complaint from an athlete or parent.

USA Gymnastics says it alerted FBI to doctor accused of sex abuse in 2015

There is nothing in the Ted Stevens Act that requires written complaints from victims in order to ban a coach suspected of abuse, but interpretations of the law have recurred in sex abuse scandals in Olympic sports. A recent Washington Post story detailed how officials at USA Taekwondo declined to ban a coach accused by three women of sexual abuse out of concern of violating the coach’s due process rights under the Ted Stevens Act. When he was convicted of sexual abuse more than a year after the victims came forward, USA Taekwondo banned him.

Victims’ advocates expressed optimism at Wednesday’s announcement, while voicing frustration it has taken this long. More than 150 coaches and officials associated with Olympic sport governing bodies have been convicted of sex crimes since the early 1980s, according to a Washington Post review of coach ban lists, court records and news clips. USA Gymnastics is one of six Olympic governing bodies that have been accused of mishandling complaints of abuse.

Government probe of sex abuse prevention in Olympic sports went nowhere

“I see this as a tangible way to make sports safer … Right now, there are only bad things that can happen as the result of a victim reporting sexual abuse,” said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time gold medalist Olympic swimmer, civil rights attorney and CEO of ChampionWomen, an advocacy group.

“I’ve been pounding on the doors for the last six years on this,” said Katherine Starr, founder and president of Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit that works to prevent abuse in sports. “I’m glad that Dianne Feinstein is actually doing something and stepping up. I wish it was earlier, but I’m grateful that it’s actually happening.”

In a written statement, USA Gymnastics noted it already follows “applicable law in reporting abusive situations to the proper authorities” and sometimes may “report even if not compelled by law to do so. …

“USA Gymnastics is committed to doing everything we can to promote a safe environment for athletes, and we appreciate the Senator’s interest in this important matter.”

In an emailed statement, USOC Chief External Affairs Officer Patrick Sandusky said the organization is “grateful that Senator Feinstein is investing time and attention to safe sport.”

“We welcome any and all dialogue on the subject of how training environments can be made safer,” Sandusky wrote.

Steven Rich contributed to this report.  

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