In 2013, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) demanded that the Government Accountability Office investigate sex abuse in youth sports.
Outraged by a series of critical news reports about abuse in elite swimming, Miller wanted the GAO to examine how USA Swimming and similar Olympic sport national governing bodies — which credential coaches who work with millions of children annually — were working to prevent abuse, and recommend improvements.
Released in 2015, the GAO’s report did almost nothing Miller had wanted. The report made no recommendations. It included no explanation for why Olympic sport organizations had lagged years — and in some cases more than a decade — behind other youth-serving organizations on basic child protection measures.
GAO researchers hadn’t examined how the federal law that governs American Olympic sports organizations can impede child protection measures. They didn’t interview any victims, nor did they review any internal documents from USA Swimming or other Olympic sport organizations produced in court cases.
As another sex abuse scandal in American Olympic sports has erupted involving USA Gymnastics, Miller expressed frustration in a recent phone interview that his 2013 request didn’t trigger a more aggressive review. Miller noted that he retired in 2014, and he he said he thinks that played a role in the GAO not investigating the report as rigorously as he had hoped.
“I think the GAO had a congressman on his way out of office,” Miller said. “I don’t know that they really poured the coal into this problem in the manner that they usually would.”
In phone interviews, two GAO officials defended the report as the best the agency could do within the office’s parameters to examine federal agencies and the spending of federal dollars. Although Congress chartered the USOC, which oversees the 47 Olympic sport national governing bodies, the organizations are all private, 501(c)3 nonprofits, so GAO lawyers didn’t believe they had jurisdiction.
“The USOC is a federally chartered nonprofit . . . but it is not a federal agency, and we don’t view it as one,” said Helen Desaulniers, an attorney in the GAO’s office of general counsel. “We looked at the request, and we tried to think about how to do something meaningful.”
“There was only so far we could go,” said Kay Brown, GAO director of education, workforce and income security.
The 46-page report, titled “Youth athletes: Sports programs’ guidance, practices, and policies to help prevent and respond to sexual abuse,” explained the structure of Olympic sports organizations in America and listed suggested practices youth-serving organizations should adopt for preventing and dealing with incidents of abuse, such as background checks for adults who work with children, education programs so adults can recognize signs of abuse and policies for how to handle allegations of abuse.
The report noted that the USOC first required Olympic sport governing bodies to impose some of these basic policies by January 2014. The report also stated that the USOC was creating an independent entity to investigate abuse cases in Olympic sports — the U.S. Center for SafeSport — that should open by late 2015. After several delays, the Center is now slated to open this April.
When Miller enlisted the GAO’s help, he said, he hoped the agency would investigate how Olympic sports organizations actually respond to allegations of abuse, and potentially benchmark child protection measures at Olympic governing bodies against other youth-serving organizations.
A 2010 GAO investigation of for-profit colleges demonstrated the tactics Miller wanted applied to Olympic sports organizations. For that investigation, GAO researchers posed as fictitious students and uncovered for-profit college employees encouraging students to falsify financial aid applications and making deceptive statements about students’ potential earnings. By benchmarking against local public colleges, GAO researchers found for-profit colleges charged substantially more for comparable degrees.
If GAO researchers had benchmarked Olympic governing abuse prevention measures against other youth-serving organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, they may have observed how the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act can interfere with attempts at child protection.
Lawyers have interpreted the Ted Stevens Act — which governs Olympic sports organizations — to require a sport governing body to provide fair notice, a hearing and due process to anyone it wants to ban; requirements that other youth-serving organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America do not have to meet before expelling an employee or volunteer suspected of abuse.
Benchmarking Olympic bodies on child protection also may have shown how Olympic governing bodies lagged far behind other youth-serving organizations in implementing basic policies such as background checks and abuse education programs.
USA Swimming was one of the first Olympic governing bodies to require background checks for all coaches working with children in 2006, more than a decade after that practice first became common. The USOC didn’t require all Olympic governing bodies to have basic child protection measures until 2014.
The GAO had the authority to more rigorously investigate for-profit colleges, according to GAO director Brown, because the schools are eligible for federal student aid.
Michael Zola, a former GAO investigator and attorney who later joined Miller’s congressional staff, said he unsuccessfully lobbied his former colleagues to launch a thorough, wide-scale investigation into sex abuse in Olympic sports.
In a phone interview, Zola said he was disconcerted to again see sex abuse in Olympic sports making national news over the last year. USA Gymnastics’ longtime physician Larry Nassar faces criminal charges of sex assault of a child and possession of child pornography, and more than a dozen alleged victims have sued USA Gymnastics, alleging negligence. Separately, a lawsuit filed by a victim of a local coach in Georgia convicted of sexual exploitation of children has produced evidence that USA Gymnastics failed to alert law enforcement to prior complaints of a sexual nature against the coach.
USA Gymnastics has denied wrongdoing in these cases and is contesting the claims.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a segment of “60 Minutes” that aired Sunday that she is working on legislation that will spell out how amateur athletic associations, including national governing bodies for Olympic sports, respond to allegations of sexual abuse.
Zola noted the recurring role in abuse scandals played by the Ted Stevens Act, which victims’ advocates have criticized for not requiring Olympic governing bodies to protect the children in their ranks.
In lawsuits, lawyers for sport governing bodies have argued — sometimes with success — that although they offer coaching credentials or memberships, they are not responsible for ensuring the coaches are safe to work with children and that such responsibility ultimately falls to the local club that employs them.
“Maybe we should expressly put that [a duty to protect children] in the law, so we’re not all standing around pointing at each other saying, ‘Well, aren’t you supposed to do that?’ ” Zola said. “We know that there are examples where lives have been destroyed, and we’re the grown-ups. We’re the ones who are supposed to prevent those things from happening.”