Senators propose legislation to help fund Olympic sex abuse prevention agency

Washington Post

Two senators proposed legislation Friday that would offer federal funding and legal protections to a new nonprofit focused on preventing sexual abuse in Olympic sports organizations.

The Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 - proposed by Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Bill Nelson, D-Fla. - would send $5 million in federal money over five years to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nascent organization created by the U.S. Olympic Committee to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within Olympic sports organizations.

"Mishandled responses to sexual abuse within the U.S. Olympic movement are inexcusable and a stain on a source of great national pride for our country," Thune said in a news release. "Setting up an independent entity to serve as a watchdog is a necessary step to ensure that responsible adults do not feel or appear conflicted when abuse is reported."

The Center for SafeSport is modeled after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, a similarly independent nonprofit tasked with policing drug cheating in America's Olympic sports organization. Originally scheduled to open in 2015, the Center opened this year, and USOC officials have attributed the delay to fundraising difficulties. The Center, headquartered in Denver, has a projected five-year operating budget of about $25 million.

The proposed legislation also would create unique legal protections for the Center by eliminating any liability for damages in any libel or slander cases. In the past, Olympic officials, when explaining lags in revoking the membership of a coach suspected of abusing a child, have cited the possibility coaches could sue for defamation.

The bill also would amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, the law that governs Olympic sports organizations, to add a new responsibility for the USOC: "to promote a safe environment in sports that is free from abuse, including emotional, physical and sexual abuse, of any amateur athlete."

"We're encouraged by this legislative effort to protect athletes," said Patrick Sandusky, USOC spokesman. "We will continue to do everything we can to provide safe opportunities for kids to participate in sport."

Shellie Pfohl, the chief executive of the Center for SafeSport, released a statement supporting the legislation.

"We are grateful for the interest and leadership Chairman Thune and ranking member Nelson are showing on these important issues," Pfohl said. "We all want the same thing: to see athletes thrive in sport environments free of abuse."

Thune is the chairman and Nelson is the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight authority over the USOC and Olympic national governing bodies such as USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming.

Sex abuse in Olympic sports has been a recurring problem for years, most recently with the case of Larry Nassar, the former team physician for USA Gymnastics facing 12 criminal charges of sexual assault of children in Michigan. More than 100 women, including multiple former Team USA gymnasts, have alleged in lawsuits that Nassar sexually assaulted them, often during medical examinations.

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