US bill aims to protect athletes after Nassar sex-abuse scandal

Larry Nassar, a former team USA Gymnastics doctor who pleaded guilty in November 2017 to sexual assault charges, stands in court during his sentencing hearing in the Eaton County Court in Charlotte, Michigan on Feb 5, 2018. (Reuters pic) 

NEW MEXICO: Two US senators introduced legislation on Tuesday to prevent sexual assaults against athletes by increasing oversight and legal liability for US Olympic and sports officials following the Larry Nassar scandal.

The legislation was welcomed by former gymnasts and abuse survivors such as Jordyn Wieber but drew a mixed response from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), which said it could cause operational “disruption” for athletes.

The bill followed an 18-month bipartisan investigation that found Nassar, the former team doctor for USA Gymnastics, was able to assault hundreds of girls and women because of a lack of transparency and accountability among US Olympic officials, coaches and trainers.

“This needs to empower and embolden the athletes who should feel they can come forward without fear of retaliation, and without intimidation,” Democrat Richard Blumenthal said in a conference call about the bill he co-sponsored with Republican Jerry Moran.

The bill gives Congress authority to dissolve the board of the US Olympic Committee and decertify national governing bodies should they fail to protect athletes.

The Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act would also impose greater legal liability on both the USOPC and national governing bodies that oversee amateur sports for acts such as sexual abuse by coaches and employees.

Nassar was sentenced to up to 300 years in prison in 2017 after more than 350 women testified about abuse at his hands, including Olympic champions Aly Raisman and Wieber.

The scandal prompted the resignation of the board and other officials at USA Gymnastics (USAG), the sport’s governing body, after victims accused them of being slow to investigate abuse allegations.

Former USAG officials said the national Olympic committee was informed of sexual abuse in gymnastics more than two decades ago but did little to address the issue.

To raise oversight, the Senate bill would increase the level of athletes’ representation on the USOPC board.

It would also require the committee to pay the Center for SafeSport US$20 million a year to raise the independence of the organisation set up to investigate allegations of sexual abuse in sports.

“Stronger oversight by Congress and a truly independent Center for SafeSport is necessary to restore public confidence in our Olympic organisations,” Wieber said in a statement.

USOPC chief executive offficer Sarah Hirshland supported the senators’ bid to improve safety but said she looked forward to working with Congress to address certain areas of the bill.

The legislation does not spell out, for example, how a sports governing body would be replaced should it be dissolved by Congress, she said.

“There are sections in the proposed legislation that, while conceptually appropriate, could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality,” Hirshland said in a statement.