Top officials from the U.S. Olympic Committee and four sports governing bodies faced grilling from a House committee Wednesday, with many lawmakers expressing skepticism that the organizations will enact lasting institutional changes in response to a number of high-profile sexual abuse scandals.
Hoping to secure more than apologies, members of the House energy and commerce committee focused on whether officials are committing to changing the institutions that allowed abuse at the hands of coaches, trainers and other trusted figures to go on for so long.
In recent months, the USOC and the sports governing bodies have launched their own investigations and implemented incremental reforms, including mandatory reporting of incidents and the launch of the Center for SafeSport, responsible for handling abuse claims and conducting anti-harassment training.
Officials pointed to these steps but acknowledged they are not enough. The lawmakers did not seem convinced that the reforms will go beyond what Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) called “window dressing.”
“Honestly, I’m not reassured by your testimony, because I don’t hear a sense of urgency,” a visibly angry Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) told the officials, citing the scores of young gymnasts abused by former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was convicted of sexual assault earlier this year.
“Why should I take confidence from what you are saying today?” she continued.
Olympics and gymnastics officials have faced heavy scrutiny over whether they stayed quiet about Nassar. The governing bodies of swimming, taekwondo and volleyball have meanwhile been engulfed in scandals involving widespread sexual abuse.
Lawmakers directed much of their questioning at Susanne Lyons, the acting chief executive of USOC, and Shellie Pfohl, the head of SafeSport.
Pfohl testified that the center has seen a deluge of claims, attributing the increase to the Me Too movement and Nassar’s trial earlier this year. She told lawmakers that SafeSport’s funding and staffing are insufficient.
“This time last year, we were getting 20 to 30 reports per month. Now, we’re getting 20 to 30 reports per week,” she said, emphasizing “to anyone listening” that claims can be anonymous and are not subject to a statute of limitations.
Pfohl also affirmed the independence of the organization, promising that incidents are investigated in an “independent, confidential and professional manner.” She added that under new policies, officials are required to report sexual abuse claims to law enforcement officials.
Lyons repeatedly affirmed that the USOC will assert more “authority” and not give too much “autonomy” to the governing bodies, announcing plans to require them to report sexual abuse claims to the USOC. Many of the abuse scandals have exposed insufficient communication and inconsistent policies across these sports organizations, with claims falling through the cracks.
Much of what we’re hearing today sounds good, but I’m worried that we do not have a way to know whether things will actually get better. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.)
The officials also pledged to strengthen background checks for coaches and other sports officials, and improve audits of their organizational processes. Pfohl cited SafeSport’s training and education programs, designed to prevent future abuse, and said that individuals will not face retaliation for reporting incidents.
Lawmakers were particularly concerned about whether the organizations are adequately establishing a “culture change” and trying to reform their institutions rather than protecting them ― a major theme exposed by the Me Too and Time’s Up movements.
“Much of what we’re hearing today sounds good, but I’m worried that we do not have a way to know whether things will actually get better,” Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) said.
Committee chair Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) noted that many of the athletes who’ve spoken out about their sexual misconduct experiences have said “the culture of medals and money won out over athletes’ protection and safety.”
Pfohl repeatedly promised that “athletes’ safety comes first.”
“Make no mistake, we work for athletes,” she said.
As part of its probe, the House committee also requested information from officials at Michigan State University, which is facing its own scandal over its handling of the allegations against Nassar, a longtime employee of the school.
Officials at all of these institutions have faced allegations that they turned a blind eye to systemic sexual abuse or tried to cover it up.
Earlier this week, Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors sued USA Swimming, becoming the latest athlete to allege that top sports officials ignored her claims.
Some lawmakers attempted, to no avail, to seek answers on whether the various organizations had actively tried to cover up evidence of sexual abuse. Several officials cited an ongoing independent investigation into the USOC and USA Gymnastics launched earlier this year.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.
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