Despite the game-changing history being made at the Olympics this week, it’s difficult to escape the heightened awareness of sexual abuse among athletes that Larry Nassar’s sentencing and the #metoo movement have spurred. For example, hours after snowboarder Shaun White won his third gold medal, a reporter asked him about sexual harassment allegations and a subsequent settlement from 2016.
For the Winter Games, PyeongChang opened four sexual assault counseling centers to offer therapy, medical treatment, and legal advice for potential victims—it’s the first time an Olympic host city has ever been so proactive.
US lawmakers hope to address sexual violence within Olympic sports another way. Just a few weeks after 156 women shared their stories of physical and emotional trauma during Nassar’s sentencing, the president signs a bill into law today that will make it a crime for Olympic sports officials not to report suspected sexual abuse within 24 hours. (The signing is closed to the press as the White House deals with the aftermath of abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter, who Trump has yet to condemn). The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act is expected to protect eight million child athletes, according to Champion Women, an organization that provides legal advocacy for women and girls in sports.
In addition to holding coaches, trainers, and others accountable for the athletes in their care, the law also designates the Center for Safe Sport (which launched last year) as an independent organization responsible for preventing abuse by way of developing the appropriate training, practices and policies. One important measure explicitly outlined in the statute is limiting interactions between young athletes and adults (who aren’t their parents) to “being in an observable and interruptible distance from another adult, except under emergency circumstances.”
“While we celebrate today … there is still work to be done,” Jeanette Antolin, a former Team USA gymnast and one of Nassar’s victims, said during a press conference last month on the bill’s passage in the House. “There must be a thorough investigation … Time’s not on our side; we must act now.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar is an Olympic gold medalist swimmer and founder of Champion Women who’s been working on behalf of abuse victims for years. She tells Broadly the legislation “is the best first step that we could possibly hope for.”
“We advocates have been trying to get child protection measures in place for years and have been unsuccessful,” she says. “We couldn’t get it within USOC—they have the power and authority to say no adults alone with children, which would have stopped the vast majority of Larry Nassar’s abuse. They could have said, ‘OK, if you’re a member of our organization, you are a mandatory reporter. If you want to belong to our organization, it requires that you report to the police, the FBI, or child protective services if you suspect sexual abuse,’ which is the standard.” Instead, she points out, it took 156 victims of sexual assault telling their stories to get federal lawmakers to pass such protections.
Sexual violence in sports, much like campus sexual assault, thrives because of deep-seated cultural issues. The best way to address the culture of abuse in sports is to take a harder look at the kind of power coaches wield, Hogshead-Makar says. When she was a swimmer, she explains, the onus was on her to qualify during Olympic trials; there was nothing her coach could do. It’s not like that in gymnastics, she says. “If one of the coaches doesn’t like you, you’re not on the team, period. That gives them authority over an athlete over virtually all of their lives. What they wear, whether or not they have a tattoo, what kind of haircut they had, how much they smile in practice, what they eat, what kind of medical care they got. That’s the level of power that a coach had over athletes.”
“In the past, if you were a pedophile, sports is where you’d want to go,” Hogshead-Makar continues. “Teachers have a lot of oversight. All of these other youth-serving organizations, they have tons of oversight. In sports, it is still routine for coaches and athletes to text each other individually, to be on social media at the same time, [for coaches] to be alone with an athlete [and] to give them gifts—so all of the things that every child protection expert would say, you want to head it off at the pass.”
The bill the president signs into law today, she says, finally offers that important oversight. In the past, the USOC has said it wasn’t their legal responsibility to protect gymnasts from Nassar. “The statute says, ‘Yes, it is your responsibility to protect these athletes from abuse of any kind,’” Hogshead-Makar says.