Easing troubled minds: Compliance and sexual abuse in sports

John Martin
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law J.D. 2018

The Dr. Larry Nassar abuse scandal recently rocked the world of sports.  Dr. Nassar, in his role as athletic trainer for the USA Gymnastics team, is alleged to have abused over 250 girls and young women, though he has only admitted to ten of the accusations.  The resulting fallout has brought to light many issues in the world of amateur sports, unfortunately an issue that affects young adults and children.  In particular, the US Olympic Committee is now facing multiple lawsuits from athletes who were abused by Dr. Nassar.  Aly Raisman, the two time-Olympian who has become the face of Nassar’s victims, alleges that the Committee knew or should have known that Dr. Nasser was abusing her and other young girls.

Citing health reasons, Committee CEO Scott Blackmun resigned in February, though the move is widely considered to be in response to the Nassar scandal.  As the U.S. reels from the events, Congress has enacted on legislation that would strengthen reporting requirements and other protections for athletes.

Senate Bill 534

New legislation co-sponsored by Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and signed into law by President Trump on February 14, 2018 will hopefully add teeth to existing protections for student athletes. Senate Bill 534, or the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (the “Act”), has three prongs all of which are important for those who work in compliance for any entity with an athletic program.  The three focuses are: (1) expansion of reporting requirements, (2) extension of the statute of limitations, and (3) expansion of the roles and responsibilities of the U.S. Center for Safe Sport.

These prongs work together to set new standards of sexual assault prevention without exacerbating costs.  The aim is to allow everyone to focus on what truly matters: supporting student-athletes.

Three focuses examined

The first prong of the Act focuses on mandates reporting of any sexual abuse to local or federal law enforcement, or to a Justice Department-designated child-welfare agency within 24 hours.  This is important to preserve evidence and ensure events are investigated quickly and resolved.   One of the key issues that allowed Dr. Nassar to continue his heinous acts was that while many people, including adults, were aware of what he was doing, few opted to report it.

This part of the law can be boiled down to the concept of “See something, say something,”.  But a law can’t teach people to see nor can it teach people to understand what they’ve seen.  From a compliance viewpoint, any entity involved in the training and mentoring of athletes must work to understand future guidelines to develop programs to ensure safety.  Broadening sexual abuse awareness training will be necessary to teach people how to identify the signs of abuse, and strengthening a culture of reporting will help to ease troubled minds.

The second prong of the Act extends the statute of limitations for civil actions against abusers to 10 years after a victim realizes they were abused.  Victims of Dr. Nassar were minors at the time of the crime, and as such, some did not realize they were in fact abused.  Extending the statute of limitations is smart, as it recognizes this potential difficulty for the victim.

Looking at this from a compliance perspective for a moment, this opens up a larger window for lawsuits against companies or institutions that employ or employed abusers.  As noted above, there are lawsuits pending against the Olympic Committee for not knowing or not having done anything about Dr. Nassar’s actions. As an officer of the company or an agent of the institution, whatever program the compliance officer chooses to implement going forward must be strong in order to reduce the entity’s liability.

Third, the Act expands the U.S. Center for Safe Sport, directing the institution to “develop policies and procedures to resolve allegations of sexual abuse within its jurisdiction[.]”  Also the law expands the Center’s jurisdiction, putting it as the head organization in the country to tackle these issues.  The Center, launched last year, has already had over 500 reports concerning instances of abuse, more than one per day.  The Center is now the vanguard for guidelines on how to craft policies and programs to protect our athletes.  Participation in the Center is mandatory for continued membership in the U.S. Olympic Network.   On March 21, 2018, the Center published 4 different guidance documents for athletic programs to utilize.

In the end…

The fact that Dr. Nassar was able to inflict such pain on so many victims is a horrific tragedy.  By enacting this law, Congress has shown that as a country we are going to take a stand against these actions and those who would perpetrate these crimes.  Any organization that works to shape and mold our athletes must review their compliance programs and see where they can improve them, using the U.S. Center for Safe Sport’s current and future guidelines as a model.  This is a sorely needed boost to protecting our athletes, and we can only hope that it will help ensure the safety and security of student-athletes everywhere.