“Let’s make sure that expectations match up with feasibility, and right now there’s a mismatch here,” Hirshland said Wednesday, one day after her latest round of Capitol Hill meetings. “A conversation has to happen. It’s not just, ‘By the way, our hand is out.’ Collectively, we all need to be successful, and the path that we’re on right now is not going to lead us there.”
Speaking at an event staged by the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society program and sponsored by The Washington Post, Hirshland told the Washington audience that the USOC, which does not receive federal funds, cannot be the sole funding source for the Center for SafeSport.
“The reality is we absolutely have an obligation to continue in support. It’s important to us, and we’ll continue to do that,” she said. “But were we to be the only funding source, it would draw down the resources of our organizations so dramatically that we would be making very difficult choices about where we’re not investing our dollars.”
When the center formally opened its Denver headquarters in 2017, it had a projected five-year operating budget of about $25 million, or about $5 million per year. But sexual abuse allegations across several Olympic sports have dominated headlines since then, and the center has fielded more than 2,700 reports since March 2017, in addition to conducting training for 520,000 individuals. The workload has created a backlog of hundreds of open cases, far more than its 38-person staff can handle in a timely manner.
The USOC and the national governing bodies have doubled their annual contributions, and the center today operates on a budget of $11.3 million, with the USOC contributing $6.2 million and national governing bodies contributing an additional $2 million.
In 2017, the USOC, which operates as a nonprofit, reported $194 million in revenue and $209 million in expenses. Hirshland, who took over as chief executive last year, has an annual salary of $600,000, with a chance to earn up to 50 percent more in bonus money.
Last year the SafeSport center was given a three-year, $2.2 million grant from the Department of Justice — the only government money it receives — but that grant money is intended solely for educational programs and can’t be used to help investigate complaints of sexual abuse.
Hirshland says the center needs much more and a new funding formula should include an influx of federal dollars.
“I think the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency provides a really good model for what funding for the Center for SafeSport could look like,” said Max Cobb, the chief executive of U.S. Biathlon, who also has worked on the issue, “where a narrow majority of the funding is coming through the United States government but a not insignificant portion is coming from the United States Olympic Committee and from the sport movement.”
According to USADA’s annual report, the anti-doping agency received $9.5 million in the form of a government grant in 2017, accounting for 44 percent of its revenue. The USOC contributed an additional $6.1 million.
For its part, the Center for SafeSport is seeking multiyear financial commitments so its leadership isn’t chasing down grant money annually.
“While the Center welcomes additional federal support, we also believe that the USOC and the [national governing bodies] need to own their commitment to our mission and provide additional funding over a longer period of time,” a spokesman for the Center for SafeSport said in a statement.
Hirshland, who took over the USOC’s top post last August, says that as she visits with lawmakers, she isn’t merely asking for money. She wants to make sure lawmakers appreciate the full breadth of the Safe Sport Authorization Act, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump last year in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics.
“The conversations that I’ve been having are not just, by the way we need money,” she said following Wednesday’s panel discussion. “The natural reaction to some of that is ‘Why are we paying for your problem?’ The answer is ‘Actually, let’s have a conversation about the scope of the mandate that you put in place.’
“If in fact the expectation is that our organization — which is A) an unfunded mandate and B) a relatively small organization — has a mandate for the investigation, response, resolution and adjudication for sexual abuse allegations across a population of 20 million young athletes in every club and rink, this is an unsustainable promise. It’s almost like a little bit of a broken reality that we’ve got to reconcile.”
Wednesday’s event was focused on the future of the Olympic movement in the United States. Sexual abuse allegations have surfaced across multiple national governing bodies in recent years and shaken up the leadership at the USOC.
“We, the Olympic community, collectively failed our athletes,” Hirshland said. “It’s a terrible, terrible situation. It goes beyond gymnastics and, quite frankly, goes beyond sports.”
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