WASHINGTON - Outraged by both the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal and the financial struggles endured by many of America's Olympic athletes, a Colorado congresswoman announced Monday she is proposing legislation that could lead to a fundamental overhaul of the United States Olympic Committee and the other organizations that oversee Olympic sports in America.
"Our own U.S. Olympic Committee has failed . . . no number of gold medals are worth putting the health and safety of our athletes at risk," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., at a news conference Monday outside her office in Denver. "We want to make sure that it's doing the job it was created to do: to empower and serve our nation's top athletes."
Entitled the "Strengthening U.S. Olympics Act," the bill would create a commission to study the structure of the USOC and individual sport national governing bodies, commonly referred to as NGBs, organizations such as USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics, and USA Track and Field.
The commission would have 16 members, at least eight of them current or former Olympic or Paralympic athletes, and would have nine months to conduct its study before submitting a report to Congress that could become the basis for further legislation changing the structure of the USOC and sport NGBs.
DeGette chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight and investigations panel, which has spent months reviewing the circumstances surrounding Nassar's sex abuse of Olympians and aspiring Olympic athletes.
Nassar, the former longtime team physician for Team USA women gymnasts, is serving an effective life sentence for child pornography crimes as well as for sexually abusing girls and young women, often under the guise of medical treatment. Among his many accusers - the number from various lawsuits exceeds 350 - are several Olympians, including Aly Raisman, Simone Biles and McKayla Maroney. Nassar's abuses, and missed or ignored warnings signs about him have caused fallout at the various organizations through which Nassar accessed his victims: USA Gymnastics, the USOC, and Michigan State University.
DeGette's news conference Monday came after a meeting with a group of advocates for sex abuse victims, as well as with some current and former Olympic athletes and a former USOC official knowledgeable about the intricacies of the bureaucracy that oversees Olympic sports in America.
In a phone interview Monday, one of those athletes - Eli Bremer, an Olympic modern pentathlete and entrepreneur who has spent years advocating for increased pay and financial support for aspiring Olympians - explained why he feels DeGette's bill is needed.
"Nassar is a symptom; he's not the problem," Bremer said. "The problem is an organization and a system that is not stewarding one of the greatest treasures in America, which is the Olympic movement. Until you fix that and fundamentally change the system so that is working to help athletes . . . it will continue to produce problems."
The Nassar scandal, and the attention it has attracted in Congress, has united two groups of critics of the USOC and other Olympic organizations: advocates for sex abuse victims, who argue Olympic organizations don't deal aggressively enough with those suspected of abuse; and advocates for financially struggling athletes, who say the USOC spends too much money on executive pay and overhead and not enough to support athletes.
In a statement, USOC spokesperson Mark Jones wrote: "We appreciate the efforts of Congress and will continue to work constructively with both the House and the Senate to create healthy and safe environments for the American athletes we serve."
DeGette's proposed legislation comes at a time of turmoil for the USOC. In February 2018, amid rising calls for his departure over the Nassar scandal, Scott Blackmun resigned as chief executive of the USOC, citing health concerns as he dealt with treatment for prostate cancer. In December, a lengthy investigative report commissioned by the USOC found that Blackmun and another USOC executive learned about allegations against Nassar in July 2015, but failed to take any action to ensure he was no longer working with children for 14 months. The USOC immediately fired the other executive, Alan Ashley, chief of sport performance.
DeGette was joined Monday by Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who has proposed a version of this bill in the Senate, as well as Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who oversaw the extraordinary, week-long sentencing hearing in Michigan in January 2018, during which more than 160 girls, women and parents confronted Nassar, generating national outrage about the case.
"Athletes can not thrive in a system that values money and medals over the safety of athletes," Aquilina said. "We need to flip the script."