Nassar victims force behind bill to protect athletes

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — Lawmakers on Tuesday lauded the survivors of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse for exposing a “corrupt” system and prompting federal legislation that would impose oversight procedures to protect future athletes.

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a lead sponsor of the bill, said it came about because of her meeting in Washington a year ago with eight of those survivors, including six former gymnasts, whose stories she listened to for an hour.

“The meeting made clear that USA Gymnastics was fostering a culture that put money and medals first – far ahead of the safety and well-being of athletes,” said Feinstein, a California Democrat, at a news conference where she appeared with three of the women and other lawmakers and athletes.

“(These) reforms are only possible because these women have been so courageous. They decided to come forward, they shared their pain, and they did everything they could to see that what happened to them would never happen to anyone else again.”

The U.S. House on Monday passed Feinstein’s bipartisan bill requiring sports governing organizations that train young amateur athletes to report suspected cases of abuse to authorities within 24 hours.

The legislation, which passed the Senate in November, was approved again on Wednesday after a funding change made by the House. The bill now goes to President Donald Trump for his signature.

The bill’s passage follows last week’s sentencing of Nassar, a former sports doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, to 40 to 175 years imprisonment for first-degree sexual misconduct charges after more than 150 women and girls said he sexually abused them.

“I believe by taking this legislation forward – and I can’t wait to see it signed into law – that we have taken concrete action in response to the great athletes we see here who exposed a thoroughly corrupt system,” said Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who co-sponsored the measure.

“I thank you so much for your courage and for speaking out.”

Jeanette Antolin, former USA Gymnastics national team member, said there’s still work to be done, calling for a thorough investigation to uncover how the U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and MSU “failed” their athletes.

“Every minute that goes by with unanswered questions, more innocent children could be harmed,” said Antolin, who met last year with Feinstein.

“Think of the children in your lives. How much are their lives worth? I know for my sister survivors, it’s been a long road. Speaking up very early was not easy thing.”

U.S. House and Senate committees last week opened investigations into the handling of sexual abuse allegations by MSU, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee, among other amateur sports groups. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is also investigating the university with a special prosecutor.

Antolin said federal legislation was necessary because the problem goes beyond MSU and USA Gymnastics to other sports and athletic facilities.

Dominique Moceanu, the 1996 Olympic gold medalist, said enacting the legislation would be a “distinctive, positive turning point” in sports.

“While these standards and legislation are set, it is more imperative than ever to work together to protect athletes to provide safe environments for them,” said Moceanu, who also met last year with Feinstein.

The legislation designates the U.S. Center for SafeSport to develop, implement and enforce policies and training for the national governing bodies and their members to prevent the abuse of minors or amateur athletes.

One of those procedures would be to create a mechanism to allow a complainant to “easily” report an incident of sexual abuse. Another would prevent minor athletes from being in a one-on-one situation with an adult who is not their legal guardian without another adult being nearby.

The House removed from the bill funding for the Center for SafeSport – $1 million a year through 2021 – because it was deemed an impermissible earmark.

Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said at the news conference that funding for the center “will be addressed in another way.”

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