Two bills proposed to protect our country’s Olympic athletes could compete for approval after the August recess. All young lives matter, so they have to get this right.
One bill, originated by a politician from Kansas and another from Connecticut, might inadvertently cause closure of the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. The other, led by bipartisan Colorado members of Congress, could substantively improve the Springs-based United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee for generations to come.
First, consider an unfortunate bill introduced by Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut. Known as the “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019,” the law would authorize Congress to dissolve the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee. This would supposedly empower Washington to intervene if the USOC board fails to protect athletes from abuse of any type.
It sounds like a tough-on-crime approach from on high. In truth, it is a big so what. Congress established the USOPC (formerly USOC) with the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. Congress never lacks authority to control that which it creates. Congress has mostly ignored the USOC and USOPC for 41 years. With or without this bill, we can expect more of the same.
The Moran-Blumenthal law would increase representation of amateur athletes on the USOPC board from one-fifth to one-third. This means athletes would go from minority status to slightly less minority status, never controlling agendas or outcomes. It is a gesture worth little more than a feel-good vibe.
The bill would require the UOSPC “to establish clear procedures and reporting requirements that will protect athletes going forward.” The USOPC has such policies. This is Washington demanding more of the same and expecting a different result.
The law would require “bolstering the Office of the Ombudsman’s authority and independence to aid athletes who have been assaulted or abused...” Translation: simply “bolster” an oversight office that failed athletes before.
The bill contains more, but nothing innovative and bold. It sounds like congressional staffers addressing problems in an institution they know little about.
The most intriguing proposal would require increasing the USOPC’s annual payment to the United States Center for SafeSport from $3.1 million in 2018 to $20 million going forward. The USOPC created SafeSport to protect athletes from the likes of former USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, a serial child molester, and other perverts and abusers.
SafeSport is underfunded, and even the $20 million seems insufficient. Yet, what’s proposed in the Moran-Blumenthal bill might not be the best way to shore up SafeSport. Olympics insiders say the $20 million new annual obligation might cause closure of the USOPC Training Center to pay for it. Alternatively, the USOPC could gut disbursements to governing bodies of Olympic teams. Either way, the mandate would reduce athlete resources.
Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, and Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, have a better plan for protecting athletes. Their bill, the “Strengthening U.S. Olympics Act,” does not leave problem-solving in the hands of Washington politicians and Hill staffers who lack close knowledge of the USOPC.
The Colorado-inspired bill would charge experts with devising real solutions to dilemmas within a complex organization. The law would establish a 16-member commission of athletes, coaches and professional victims’ advocates. Olympians or Paralympians would comprise half of the commission.
Members would study and assess facets of the U.S. Olympic system relevant to protecting athletes. While the Moran-Blumenthal bill assumes SafeSport works, Gardner and DeGette want a commission inquiry to determine whether the agency “effectively handles reported cases of bullying, hazing, harassment, sexual assault,” and more. The commission could suggest possible Safe-Sport improvements and sustainable funding options, including federal subsidies. We need information and ideas scrutinized by experts; not congressional retreads of worn ideas that no longer work.
Then-President Gerald Ford established the U.S. President’s Commission on Olympic Sports in 1975. The commission’s in-depth study led to the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act of 1978. Over 41 years, the U.S. Olympic structure has grown beyond its small and humble beginnings. It is time for renovation.
The Moran-Blumenthal bill assumes D.C. can solve abuse within institutions far removed from the Beltway, even though it cannot resolve sexual abuse in Congress. The bill is full of good intent, while lacking assurances and processes to protect athletes and guarantee justice.
The Gardner-DeGette bill ensures seasoned experts will spend up to 270 days listening, learning and devising long-term and substantive reforms. It doesn’t rest on the banal assumption that Congress knows best.