Amateur Athletics Governance: Tumbling Over Misconduct Reporting

Ashley J. Beth
Associate Editor
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

In 2010, a 20/20 investigative report revealed inappropriate relationships between minor athletes and their coaches, which has led to one hundred and-eighty-five coaches being banned from USA swimming for sexual-misconduct violations. The systematic failures of amateur sports governance again came to the forefront of public conversation in 2016 by the scandal of  USA Gymnastics (“USAG”), when then national team doctor, Larry Nassar (“Nassar”), was accused of sexually and emotionally abusing over three-hundred athletes. As a result, Congress has enhanced government oversight of amateur sports in response to numerous allegations in recent years targeting amateur sports governing bodies’ failures to address physical and mental misconduct. New legislation is expected to make significant reforms by requiring training, reporting, and a new system to manage allegations of of sexual abuse, among other changes.

The United States olympic and paralympic committee and USA gymnastics: misconduct reporting structure 

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (“USOPC”) is a private, federally chartered, nonprofit corporation that has been granted exclusive jurisdiction to promote and support amateur athletic activities involving the U.S. and foreign nations. Congress granted the authority to the USOPC under the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, 36 U.S.C. §2205 (2012). The USOPC has general authority to recognize National Governing Bodies (“NGO’s”) and to resolve conflicts and disputes involving them. NGOs are organizations that govern and manage all aspects of their individual sports within the U.S. The USOPC has delegated the responsibility of reporting, investigating, and adjudication to the NGOs. However, there is a lack of uniformity and confusion among the 50 NGOs as to how to respond to misconduct allegations. 

The breakdown in the system was evident after the USAG scandal exposed failures within the organizations and among the top individuals who were responsible for protecting the athletes under their jurisdiction. USAG is the national governing body in the U.S. for gymnastics. USAG sets the rules and policies governing the sport, selects and trains the national team, serves as the resource center for members, clubs, fans and gymnasts throughout the U.S. The members of USAG include about 200,000 athletes, professionals and clubs. USAG has jurisdiction over emotional misconduct, bullying, hazing, physical misconduct and retaliation related to Safe Sport complaints involving affiliated members or gyms.

As a result of the USAG scandal, USOPC filed a complaint initiating a Section 8 proceeding against USAG, seeking to revoke USAG’s recognition as a member of the USOPC. Section 8 of the USOPC’s bylaws allows the CEO to initiate a process to revoke the recognition of a NGB. The CEO must file a complaint and then there is a hearing before an independent three-member panel. The panel presents a report to the organization’s board who has the final decision on the matter. One month after the complaint was initiated, USAG filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in what some have speculated is a move to halt or even end decertification proceedings. 

The USOPC committee also requested an independent investigation report to determine where the misconduct reporting system failed within the their own governing body. As a result, the report detailed that executives within the USOPC were informed of the Nassar allegations a year prior to them becoming public knowledge. One executive immediately quit and another was fired for their inaction and attempts to conceal the information. The investigation within both organizations is ongoing, with several high profile individuals within the community facing serious allegations for their roles in the scandal. 

Federal response: protecting young victims from sexual abuse and safe sport authorization act of 2017 and empowering olympic, paralympic, and amateur athletes act of 2019

As a result of the Nassar scandal, Congress has responded to address the systemic failures within amateur sports by passing two Acts amending prior legislation, The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act. These two recent Acts are the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (“Safe Sport Act”) and The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019, which is currently sitting on President Donald J. Trump’s desk to be signed. 

In 2017, The U.S. Center for SafeSport (“the Center”) was established under the Safe Sport Act.  The law gives the Center exclusive authority over cases involving sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, grooming, and child abuse within recognized NGOs. The Center has a three-stage response and resolution process over reports or allegations, including reporting, intake, investigation, and resolution. Every member of an NGO is subject to the jurisdiction of the Center, and thus are subject to the arbitration rules as the sole and exclusive method of challenging any decisions made by the Center. The parties waive any right to challenge in court the arbitrator’s decision. Further all reports, investigations, hearings, and arbitrations are confidential. 

Most recently, on October 1, 2020 Congress passed The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act calling for increased funding for the Center and more athlete representation on the USOPC board and NGOs. Specifically, the Act creates a sixteen-member commission, eight of whom would be Olympians or Paralympians, to examine what is and is not working and report back to Congress with recommendations and suggested policy changes. Additionally, the Act gives Congress the authority to fire the USOPC’s entire board and de-certify NGBs. The Act is now on President Trump’s desk to sign into law.

Future of misconduct reporting in amateur athletics

The future of USA Gymnastics as the governing body of the sport in the United States is uncertain. However, it is certain that Congress has provided a more comprehensive reporting mechanism and safeguards for amateur athletes. Questions remain as to whether the systems in place for reporting misconduct will be the most effective mechanisms in responding to misconduct allegations.