Congress OKs Nassar-inspired reform bill to protect athletes from assault

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The U.S. House approved bipartisan legislation Thursday intended to guard Olympic and amateur athletes from abuse — a measure spurred by an 18-month Senate probe into the case of disgraced Michigan State University sports doctor Larry Nassar.

The Senate unanimously passed the package in early August, so the bill next heads to President Donald Trump's desk for his signature. 

Larry Nassar

Lawmakers said the bill would bolster legal liability and accountability for Olympic officials and amateur athletic organizations for misconduct, including sexual abuse by coaches and other employees. 

Olympic officials would be required to set reporting requirements and must fund by $20 million a year the nonprofit U.S. Center for Safe Sport, which investigates allegations of sexual abuse against athletes.

The legislation also grants Congress the ability to dissolve the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee and to decertify national governing bodies that oversee amateur sports. One provision also gives athletes more representation on the organizations' boards.

The bill incorporated amendments offered by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township and a co-sponsor of the bill, to establish a confidentiality policy for whistle-blower athletes and employees who come forward to report abuse or other wrongdoing so they may do so anonymously and to prohibit retaliation against them.

Another Peters' provision requires Olympic officials to hire a third party to conduct an anonymous survey each year of active athletes that includes questions on sexual harassment. 

The package was introduced after congressional probes documented "systemic failures within the Olympic community that contributed to widespread instances of sexual abuse of athletes, including minors," California Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat, said Thursday on the House floor.

U.S. Sens. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, and Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, oversaw a lengthy investigation that began the day after Nassar's sentencing in 2018, including four hearings, numerous interviews with athletes and the collection of 70,000 records.  

Sen. Jerry Moran.

Nassar, who was also affiliated with the USA Gymnastics organization, is serving what amounts to a life sentence after admitting to sexually abusing dozens of girls and women under the guise of medical treatment and to possessing child pornography. 

The Senate investigation concluded that Nassar was able to abuse over 300 girls and women over two decades due to "ineffective oversight" by USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee.

The probe also found that USA Gymnastics and the USOC had "knowingly concealed" abuse by Nassar, which permitted him to abuse of hundreds of additional athletes from the summer of 2015 and through September 2016.

The senators also faulted the FBI for not stopping Nassar from seeing patients after it opened an investigation into him, noting that Nassar remained employed by MSU for 420 days after agents received a report from USA Gymnastics of "credible allegations" against Nassar in July 2015.

Investigators found the FBI’s investigation "dragged on and was shuffled between field offices" as Nassar continued to see patients at MSU until August 20, 2016, a day after former gymnast Rachael Denhollander submitted a complaint Nassar with MSU police in regards to alleged sexual abuse by Nassar in 2000.

The Department of Justice's inspector general's office has been investigating the FBI's handling of the Nassar inquiry for over two years. The probe is ongoing, according to a July update by IG Michael E. Horowitz. 

“The very institutions charged with protecting these athletes failed countless times, choosing to ignore or cover up abuse rather than defend and protect athletes and survivors,” Moran and Blumenthal said in a joint Thursday statement.

"Through the input and guidance of the courageous survivors — athletes who traveled to Washington, shared their stories and demanded change — we were able to advance this legislation through Congress.”

Peters said he hoped the bill would soon become law.

Senator Gary Peters, D-Mich.

"What happened at both the U.S. Olympic Committee and at Michigan State can never happen again. The culture of abuse and negligence that allowed a monster like Larry Nassar to prey on young athletes must be eradicated,” Peters said in a statement.

“We must hold institutions accountable and ensure that survivors are protected when they come forward with reports of abuse.”