It tells you a lot, in these days when not much is agreed on, that Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) share such mutual bipartisan disgust with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. They are so agreed, in fact, that they have put forward new legislation that empowers them to fire the entire board of directors. They should use it.
Usually, congressional legislation reads like code, dense columns of hieroglyphics until your head slowly rolls backward and the drool begins. But the new act proposed by Moran and Blumenthal makes you snap upright in your chair. There it is, engraved right into the top of the bill: The USOPC fundamentally failed “to uphold their existing statutory purposes and duties to protect amateur athletes from sexual, emotional or physical abuse.” What’s more, “they knowingly concealed abuse” by gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, so Congress must act. It’s stunning really. Congress just became the star witness on behalf of victims and firmly settled any question of the USOPC board’s liability.
It’s “unusual” to see such bipartisan consensus, Moran admits, which shows you just how eager Congress is to pry the steering wheel out of the hands of the crested blazers who have so defiled the Olympic movement in this country. Moran and Blumenthal, who expect the bill to pass swiftly, have decided current Olympic leaders are incapable of self-governance or curing their own corporate sickness, so they are emasculating the board and exposing it to massive liability.
“Organizations didn’t respond the way they should have legally and morally,” Moran said in a conference call Monday evening.
John Manly, attorney for more than 200 of Nassar’s victims, said, “I don’t know of another piece of legislation like that, where you have a finding so damning.” He added, “The biggest finding is that the USOC and USA Gymnastics knowingly concealed — the message that sends. I hope the Attorney General is reading this bill because there needs to be a big-time criminal investigation.”
It is Exhibit A of the USOPC board’s moral deafness that as recently as February, it gave former USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun a despicable severance payment of $2.4 million. That’s more than almost any of Nassar’s victims have received to date, and it was approved despite the clear evidence he covered up for a child molester and has been referred by Moran and Blumenthal for criminal charges for lying to Congress.
“It’s inexplicable and inexcusable,” Blumenthal said. “Blackmun is in effect one of the poster boys for what went wrong.” There may be a way, Blumenthal said, “to claw back that money.” It’s also cause for firing this board, immediately on the passage of the new bill. “They should be gone, yesterday,” Manly said.
Because the USOPC so clearly can’t be trusted to run itself as a proper nonprofit, the new bill contains a number of nursemaid provisions that should embarrass everyone involved in the Olympic movement. The board is subject to total dissolution by Congress if it acts negligently. It must pony up $20 million a year, no strings attached and without interference, to the Center for SafeSport to police abuse, “so that the USOC can’t play games with it,” as Blumenthal says. It must submit yearly reports with audits of its finances to Congressional oversight bodies, in hopes of curbing exorbitant executive spending while athletes have to practically panhandle. And it mandatorily increases athlete representation on the board from one-fifth to one-third of the members, so that athlete issues and complaints can’t be just summarily ignored.
In other words, the USOPC no longer runs itself. It will be regulated by congressional committee and subcommittees.
“This takes the country club types out of the loop,” Manly says. “If they don’t do their job, Congress can.”
The bill is by no means perfect. But it’s not nothing either, and Moran and Blumenthal and their staffs should be congratulated. Their work is a cure for creeping cynicism about the uselessness of your elected officials. Moran was clearly pained when he talked about a gymnast-victim who asked him “why there was more than one of us who encountered Larry Nassar.” Why were there hundreds?
“Congress has a lot of faults, but I sat through these hearings and they get it and I believe they really care,” Manly said.
The bill isn’t the end all of things; it’s merely a good start. Legislation is messy. Federal investigations rightfully remain open into Blackmun, and the interactions of Olympic authorities with FBI agents who failed to investigate multiple claims of abuse.
Athlete advocates hope Moran and Blumenthal will work with Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), who have proposed House legislation that would form a 16-member commission to look at an entire restructuring of the USOPC, which frankly is needed. Athletes want — and deserve — a 50 percent stake in decision-making. And most critically, Olympic finances are a wonderland of obfuscation and shell games that won’t be pierced by yearly reports to a senate subcommittee. What’s really needed are investigative audits of individual expense accounts in the executive suites, and subpoenaed records.
Without real, ongoing regulation from the congressional committees, the bill will be toothless, just as so many other legislative efforts to reform the Olympic movement have been in scandal after scandal. Athlete abuse has been a rolling 40-year issue, ever since Congress chartered the old USOC and then left it in the hands of a nonprofit board of men in boat shoes. After the bribery around the 2002 Salt Lake Games, the late senator John McCain described it as “a culture of corruption, with lavish travel and gift-giving” that violated the public trust. His reform bill passed the Senate in 2003, but hearings were still held in 2005 on the same old issues, excessive spending while inadequately caring for the athletes.
Blumenthal says the USOPC’s response to the new bill “will be a test of their commitment.” But it also will be a test of congressional commitment to really clean up this mess. Otherwise, we will be right back here in a few short years.