Greater protection for athletes: Reforming the US Olympic system

Posted in Dispute resolution, litigation and investigations Governance, anti-bribery and corruption

Amidst the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, Senators Jerry Moran and Richard Blumenthal conducted an investigation into, among other things, the USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (the USOPC) and Michigan State University. In July, 2019, the Senators introduced the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 (the Bill). The Bill is particularly concerned with protecting amateur athletes from abuse and will, among other things, amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (the Act). The Act is the primary legislation governing the current structure of the USOPC and the National Governing Bodies (the NGBs) that administer the various Olympic sports nationally.

On August 4, 2020, the US Senate unanimously passed the Bill. The Bill was further passed by the House of Representatives on October 1, 2020, and is now awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature.

Summary of the Bill

The Bill attempts to significantly alter the US Olympic system by focusing on three areas of governance reforms in the USOPC:

1) Strengthen liability and accountability mechanisms

Increasing Congressional involvement in the Olympics under the Bill is aimed at strengthening transparency and accountability within the USOPC. Firstly, the USOPC will be required to submit annual reports to Congress, which include materials from meetings of the USOPC’s Board of Directors (the Board), and outline any lawsuits and grievances filed against the USOPC. Audits of the USOPC (conducted by an independent third party) will also be improved. Congress will also have the power to completely dissolve the Board and decertify NGBs if either fail to fulfill their purposes and duties. Additionally, the Bill legislates an increase in amateur athletes’ Board representation to 33.3% (from 20%). Similar increased representation of amateur athletes on the NGBs’ governing structures (to 33.3%) is also mandated by the Bill. This will enable the USOPC and the NGBs to identify and address any potentially problematic policies faster, and will help in creating athlete-specific solutions.

2) Athletes come first

The Bill creates specific duties of care owed by the USOPC to amateur athletes. Such duties are: ensuring that NGBs comply with the oversight policies and procedures to prevent any form of abuse of amateur athletes; reporting to law enforcement any allegation of child abuse of minor amateur athletes; ensuring that each NGB has in place mandatory reporting policies and procedures; and ensuring that each NGB enforces the temporary measures imposed by the Center for SafeSport (SafeSport).

The Bill also requires the USOPC to establish clear reporting procedures to help protect athletes in the future. Furthermore, the Bill bolsters the Office of the Ombudsman’s authority and independence to aid athletes who have been assaulted or abused.

3) Strengthening the independence of SafeSport

SafeSport is an independent non-profit organization focused on ending all forms of abuse in sport through abuse prevention, education and accountability. SafeSport has the authority to respond to reports of allegations of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct within the USOPC and NGBs. The Bill imposes certain measures to strengthen SafeSport’s independence. This includes prohibiting former employees or Board members of the USOPC, or the NGBs, from working or volunteering with SafeSport for two years following the end of such employment. This will help in eliminating any potential conflicts of interest and any potential external influence during an abuse investigation. Furthermore, under the Bill, the USOPC must contribute $20 million annually to SafeSport, so that the organization has more resources at its disposal to effectively respond to abuse allegations. The USOPC will not have any discretion in terms of size or frequency of such funding.

Conclusion

The Board has already implemented changes to address the specific reforms outlined in the Bill. However, if the Bill becomes law, the protections afforded to US Olympic and Paralympic athletes will be codified into law, thus creating a stronger system of governance in the US Olympic landscape. We will continue to closely monitor developments around the Bill and its implementation.

The authors would like to thank Nareesa Nathoo, Articling Student, for her assistance in preparing this blog post.

 

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