Larry Nassar

Overhaul would give Congress power to fire USOPC board

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A bill spurred by Larry Nassar’s sex crimes and other mishandled abuse cases would allow Congress to fire the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s entire board and would quadruple the money the federation provides to the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The bill, to be introduced Tuesday, is the most far-reaching response to 18 months of outrage, investigations and recriminations in the wake of the USOPC’s handling of the cases involving Nassar and others who combined to victimize dozens of Olympic athletes.

“The best way for the USOC and the national governing (bodies) to show they’re serious about stopping abuse is to support this legislation,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas. “It’ll be a test to their commitment to turning a new page and bringing in a new era.”

The bill would increase athlete representation on the USOPC board and boards of other Olympic sports organizations (NGBs) from 20 to 33 percent.

It would make the USOPC and NGBs legally responsible for not reporting sexual abuse or failing to take measures to prevent it.

The law calls for the USOPC to provide $20 million a year to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, but offers no specifics as to how the additional $15 million will be funded.

The USOPC, which receives no federal funding, gave $3.1 million in 2018 and NGBs doubled their pledge to a total of $2 million.

Last year, Congress provided a $2.2 million grant to the center that was spread over three years and could not be used for investigations.

Blumenthal said having a concrete number that’s separate from the Congressional appropriations process is a better way of ensuring the success of the center and the USOC’s responsibility for funding it. The USOC brings in around $500 million over a typical two-year period.

But as much as the money, this bill is a virtual top-to-bottom reset of the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act, passed in 1978 during a time when the biggest concern was corralling the amateurism and cronyism that festered throughout Olympic governance in the United States.

The law was hazy, at best, regarding the USOC’s power to dictate to the NGBs it oversees. It said even less about athlete welfare and what, if any, legal repercussions existed for failing to protect them.

Those flaws created an environment that allowed Nassar to abuse dozens of gymnasts while volunteering for USA Gymnastics, and for his crimes to go unchecked for more than a year after the concerns were first presented to the USOPC.

This bill, called the “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act of 2019,” would attempt to change that, in part by leaving little gray area about the USOPC’s oversight responsibilities of NGBs, especially in regard to sex abuse.

It calls for the USOPC to renew an NGB’s standing every four years, subject to a review that would include how the organization is complying with safe-sports rules. It gives Congress the right to decertify an NGB.

It would also eliminate the tactic currently being used by USA Gymnastics, as it faces decertification: filing bankruptcy to forestall the proceedings.

And though the USOPC has always had to answer to Congress, the stakes would be much higher — and written in plain black and white.

The 14-person board, which has gone largely — and, in many minds, inappropriately — unscathed in a series of damning reports that detailed the failings of the federation, could be dismissed by a simple majority vote in Congress.

The bill includes language that would expedite the vote, while also giving lawmakers the tricky task of figuring out how the board would be replaced.

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said that while the bill complements the federation’s push for reforms, it “could result in unintended consequences and disruption for athletes in operational reality.”

For instance, the $20 million to SafeSport, along with the increased oversight and added audits and compliance measures, could impact funding available for training. Luring board members for a volunteer position (but one with perks) could be more difficult with the threat of Congressional pink slips hanging over their heads.

Adding athletes to those boards, and eliminating a requirement that they be no more than 10 years removed from elite competition, will create various challenges for the USOPC and the NGBs — most related in some way to finding enough functional business and current-day sports experience to run these confusing operations.

The bill, and the process that led to it, involved lawmakers digging into far more detail than they usually care to know regarding the day-to-day operation of the byzantine Olympic sports world — a world that has provided them an easy platform for flag waving without having to sweat the small stuff.

But given the bipartisan nature of this bill — and similar bipartisan outrage displayed during hearings on the House side — there appears to be more will to dig deep and push for change in the wake of the abuse scandal, the victims of which have captured as many headlines as any gold-medal winner since Nassar’s crimes became widely known.

“The simple stark fact is that the USOC has taken some baby steps, but they’re nowhere near the kind of major reforms that need to be done,” Blumenthal said.

‘I still love the sport’ – Maggie Nichols pushes on after Nassar

Maggie Nichols
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NORMAN, Okla. — For all the work Maggie Nichols has put into becoming a world-class gymnast, some of her most important moments in the sport these days are coming far from the mat.

Like sitting at a long table at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, welcoming a steady stream of children and their equally star-struck parents seeking autographs. As a meet continued just a few feet away, she signed away, marker gripped in her left hand. Smiling and engaging with each child, she held out hope that, in those brief moments, she could convey her deep love of a sport that has brought her both great triumph and great pain.

Nichols is a superstar athlete for gymnastics power Oklahoma with four NCAA titles in hand, including the all-around title last year. To the tens of thousands of fans who follow her on social media, she is a consistently positive, ebullient personality with a touch of sass. Mags Got Swag , after all.

Nichols is also Athlete A, the first person to tell USA Gymnastics that sports doctor Larry Nassar was sexually abusing her. The scandal that followed has rocked the sport and the U.S. Olympic movement to its core, with hundreds of girls and women somehow trying to move on with their lives as survivors – including Nichols, a Minnesota native who is a junior for the Sooners.

She knows the sport is reeling.

It is also important to her that the sport survives.

It is why it means so much to her to leave a positive impression in those brief moments with children, especially the girls. And why she feels it’s important to somehow disconnect the scandal from the sport itself.

“For me, gymnastics is such a beautiful sport, and it brings so much joy and it’s taught me so many amazing things and has given me so many amazing opportunities,” Nichols said. “So they are definitely two separate things for me.”

Nichols wants to let it be known that though the culture of sport at its highest levels hurt her, gymnastics also has helped her heal.

“I feel like gymnastics and being able to practice and compete has been a little bit of a – gets me away from all of the bad stuff that’s happened,” she said. “I still love the sport of gymnastics.”

Nichols is one of several high-profile Nassar survivors determined to help propel the sport forward through advocacy, education and compassion. Good friend and reigning Olympic champion Simone Biles won her fifth national title last summer wearing a teal leotard, the color designated for survivors of sexual abuse. Six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman started the “Flip the Switch” program designed to teach adults how to protect young athletes from predators. While all have expressed deep concern with how USA Gymnastics allowed Nassar’s behavior to run unchecked for years, they, like Nichols, have taken great pains to make sure people don’t confuse missteps by the organization with the sport itself.

Gina Nichols, herself struggling to deal with the fallout, has been empowered by the way her daughter has handled it all.

“No matter what, she’s never said – and a lot of rotten things have happened to her – like, woe is me or I feel sorry for myself. She’s never once, ever since I had her, ever felt sorry for herself for anything,” Gina Nichols said. “She always stays that way, no matter what happens to her.”

Pastor Adam Starling of Victory Family Church in Norman said Nichols’ outlook in the face of challenges is rare, especially for someone so young. He asked Nichols to tell her story at services last October, and she obliged.

“She has strength, wisdom and courage well beyond her years,” he said. “I don’t think she’s able to do this without God walking with her. To be able to go through something that’s unthinkable for anyone at such a young age and be drawn into the spotlight – I think, is a tremendous amount of pressure that very few people on the planet can relate to in any way. But I think she handled it with character, with courage, with dignity.”

Nichols wasn’t always sure that speaking out was a good idea. She actually planned to come forward a month before she did, but when the day came, she told Oklahoma coach K.J. Kindler she wasn’t ready. She finally made it known in January 2018.

“There was a lot of things that were crossing my mind before I came forward,” Nichols said. “If it would hinder any chances with my gymnastics. Also competing in gymnastics – would it change anything like that. Also things like, would people treat me different, would people look at me the wrong way, stuff like that. After I came forward, I was awfully nervous about that kind of stuff. The feedback and the responses I got were so positive. I had so many people behind me and supporting me. It was the right decision for me. I made the right decision.”

Her support system, including her church, her teammates and her family, helped her move forward. Kindler said Nichols has come a long way.

“She’s really opened up and, I think, embraced her platform and her ability to affect people positively and make an impact on young people everywhere – not just those who are going through troubled times and things of that nature, but we all have things that we struggle with,” Kindler said.

Starling said he is especially impressed with how intentional Nichols is about taking a negative situation and becoming a light to others through it.

“I think people throw around the word hero pretty easily, but I think she probably epitomizes that word because of how she’s handled it, and also how she’s been an example to everybody else that’s conquered something similar,” he said.

Nichols may have more to conquer soon. Injury derailed her last Olympic bid, and she doesn’t know if she will try to make it in 2020.

“That would be amazing if I would be able to try out for another Olympics,” she said. “That would be so fun, but I’m kind of focusing on college gymnastics right now and kind of enjoying that part of my life right now.”

She has just one more year at Oklahoma, which is the top seed in this year’s NCAA Championship. So while the spotlight shines most brightly, she has a limited window to make the most of her platform.

“I just hope to be a role model and an inspiration to many other gymnasts and non-gymnasts as well – just to know that they can speak up and they can say what’s going on in their lives as well, and just to know that you can get through any hard time,” she said. “And they can look to me for positivity.”

Michigan appeals court to look at Larry Nassar sentencing

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The Michigan Court of Appeals has agreed to decide whether imprisoned former sports doctor Larry Nassar got an unfair hearing from an outspoken judge who sentenced him to at least 40 years in prison for sexually assaulting young gymnasts.

Lansing-area Judge Rosemarie Aquilina made many provocative remarks during Nassar’s sentencing earlier this year, saying at one point that she had signed his “death warrant.”

Aquilina recently was named Glamour Woman of the Year. And in July, Nassar’s victims honored her during the ESPY awards. Hundreds of women and girls say Nassar molested them with his hands while working for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University.

The appeals court last week rejected an appeal in a 40-year sentence that a different judge ordered for Nassar.

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