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Volume 21 No. 26
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No need to amend Amateur Sports Act

USOC’s recent failures are directly related to not educating its members and Congress on the provisions of 1978 Act.

Abhorrent sexual abuses in certain Olympic sports have been exposed, reported and acted upon. The entire tragedy could have been assuaged, if not prevented, if requirements of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 had been applied. The Act transformed the U.S. Olympic Committee and required it to assume new responsibilities and mandates.

Some have argued that the Act is an impediment to the resolution of sex abuse scandals. Nothing in this law prevents the reporting, investigating and solving of sex abuses. The underlying causes of what went wrong are:

1. The USOC failed to properly oversee national governing bodies as required by the Act.

2. The USOC failed to understand certain portions of the Act.

3. The USOC failed to educate its members and Congress on its contents.

4. The USOC’s “culture” since the late 1980s ignored everything in its legislative mandate except the goal of winning Olympic medals.

A purpose of the USOC and a duty of all USOC-recognized NGBs is to promote sports safety. Clearly, reporting of sexual abuses of female gymnasts fits under the committee’s and NGBs’ requirements. But no oversight by the USOC was conducted. In fact, it appears the USOC declined to act even when alerted there were alleged sexual abuses.

Then, there are the comments made by the USOC and NGBs concerning their responsibility for action on sex abuse matters. USOC Chairman Larry Probst stated the USOC’s right to intervene in governance of NGBs is limited because NGBs are autonomous and independent according to an NGB criterion. Susanne Lyons, former acting CEO, stated: “We have to balance the autonomy of the NGBs with the desire for us to go in there with some teeth if something is wrong and take action if we believe athletes are not safe.” While Probst and Lyons appear to have since been informed otherwise, they were wrong and should have known better. The Olympic Committee can act because it is empowered to oversee NGBs, including the determination if an NGB is autonomous.

Never once, in the 40 years since the Act passed, has the USOC conducted an educational initiative concerning the letter, spirit and intent of the legislation through which it operates. The Act is complicated and requires regular education. For example, during the sex abuse crisis, the right of the USOC to “decertify” an NGB was raised. Under the Act, the USOC has this right but any NGB can appeal the decision for final and binding arbitration. The USOC has astonishingly denied for some years an NGB has this right of appeal.

The USOC also has to educate Congress about the Act. Because the USOC is not sufficiently knowledgeable of the statute, neither is Congress. Typically, Congress only examines Olympic matters when some “crisis” occurs. A result: Congress does not know how to address it.

The recently enacted “Safe Sports Act” is an example. Designed to attack sex abuse in Olympic sports, it properly codifies the existence and role of the USOC-created U.S. Center for SafeSport. But NGB reporting requirements of sex abuse now in law could just as easily have been included in Olympic Committee organic documents, not to mention the applicability of existing statutes to report sex abuses. The Act is not a criminal statute.

In its zeal to attack sex abuse issues in sport, Congress extended the reporting requirement to organizations (such as the Catholic Youth Organization, National Federation of High Schools, Little League and many others) which are only affected indirectly by the Act. Congress’ action contradicts a major provision of the statute, which grants such organizations exclusive jurisdiction over what they do. Nothing is wrong with extending sex abuse reporting to such organizations but contradicting the Act’s provisions is not the way to achieve this.

Finally, U.S. Olympic “culture” is a problem. Since the late 1980s, the USOC has stated it “cannot be all things to all people.” Translation: It will focus only on elite athletes even in sports where there aren’t any or few elite athletes. This mindset has caused misallocation of limited resources and a win-at-all-costs attitude at the expense of other things, such as pursuing sex abuse violations. The Act makes it clear that Olympic Committee objectives are also to focus on other aspects of sport, including grassroots and intermediate development. A greater concern for issues other than just winning Olympic medals would probably have prevented the lack of prompt action on sex abuse incidents.

The remedies? First, the USOC and NGBs must know and follow the Act under which they operate. Second, the Committee must educate the Olympic community and Congress on the statute’s letter, spirit and intent. Third, for USOC self governance to thrive, Congress must regularly review how well such governance is being implemented. Fourth, the “culture” must change to reflect what the Act states. If these things are done, coupled with strong procedures to cover exposure, reporting and action on sex abuse incidents, sex abuse problems should cease. There is no need to amend the Act, only the need to understand it and enforce it with congressional oversight conducted regularly.

Mike Harrigan conceived and directed the President’s Commission on Olympic Sports (1975-77). The 1978 Amateur Sports Act was based on the commission’s report.