Congress passes bill to protect amateur athletes from sex abuse

Olympic champion gymnast Dominique Moceanu called it a "distinctive positive turning point in our sport, and in all sports history."

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30:  Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (L) speaks during a news conference to discuss new legislation to protect athletes with (2nd L-R) gymnasts Dominique Moceanu,   Jeanette Antolin, Jamie Dantzscher and Mattie Larson  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) (L) speaks during a news conference to discuss new legislation to protect athletes with (2nd L-R) gymnasts Dominique Moceanu, Jeanette Antolin, Jamie Dantzscher and Mattie Larson (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON, DC — Bipartisanship is a foreign concept in Congress these days, but if there’s one thing that (almost) all members of the House and Senate can agree on — particularly after seven days of powerful victim impact statements in the Larry Nassar sentencing hearing — it’s this: we need to do more as a nation to protect young athletes from sexual abuse.

On Tuesday, agreement turned into legislation with the passing of S.534: the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act.

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The bill, which was introduced in the Senate last March by lead sponsor Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), makes members of amateur sports organizations (including Olympic sports) mandatory reporters of sexual abuse, and requires all organizations to implement standard protections for athletes.

“To me, it means all future generations of children will be in a safer place.”

“The passage of this bill is a huge victory. The implementation of proactive child athlete safety measures is a distinctive positive turning point in our sport, and in all sports history,” Olympic champion gymnast Dominque Moceanu said on Tuesday at a press conference at the Russell Senate Building.

“To me, it means all future generations of children will be in a safer place,” she later told ThinkProgress.

While Feinstein and her colleagues were among the millions of Americans who watched the 156 courageous Nassar survivors confront him in court last week, the origins of this particular bill date back a full year, when Feinstein met with some Nassar survivors in her office on February 1, 2017.

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“The minute I walked in the room, I knew something was very different, and something that was very wrong,” Feinstein recalled on Tuesday. “We spoke for more than an hour, and we walked about how USA Gymnastics (USAG) and the adults in charge failed at every turn.”

Feinstein immediately started talking with her colleagues about what could be done, and by March she had introduced the bill to the Senate. It passed the Senate last November by unanimous consent, and the media attention generated by the 156 Nassar victims speaking up at his hearing last week provided renewed urgency for the House to take up the vote. On Monday evening, it passed the House 406-3 and cleared a final vote in the Senate on Tuesday, sending the bill to President Trump’s desk for his signature.

“Everyone knows it’s not easy to pass a bill through this Congress, so be very proud,” Feinstein said. “It’s been done in a very short time.”

The most important part of the act is that it broadens mandatory child abuse reporting laws to include those affiliated with U.S. Olympic sports and other amateur sports organizations, including college athletics. Under the new law, anyone affiliated with those organizations must report sexual abuse to local and federal law enforcement or social service agencies within 24 hours, or else they can be charged with a federal crime.

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But the bill does a few other things as well: It makes clear that victims of child sex crimes are entitled to statutory damages of $150,000 as well as punitive damages; it extends the statute of limitations so it doesn’t begin to run until victims realize they’ve been abused — something incredibly important for victims of child sex abuse, because many don’t recognize the sexual and/or criminal nature of the abuse until they’re adults; and it requires the newly-created Center for Safe Sport to establish strict policies for preventing abuse and procedures for handling allegations, as well as oversight procedures to make sure that every single national governing body follows these procedures.

“We cannot live in a society where young children’s lives are destroyed at the hands of trusted adults.”

While funding for the Center for Safe Sport did get removed from the bill while it was in the House, there is optimism that the funding will be acquired through other budget  processes, since there is so much bipartisan support for the legislation.

“Those adults responsible for the safety of young athletes must be held accountable, and that’s what this bill will do,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said.

It was another emotional day for Nassar’s victims, and everyone who has been fighting to make sports a safer space for children. But the athletes stressed that the work is far from over.

“While we celebrate today and look forward to this law being enacted, there is still work to be done. In order to uncover how the [U.S. Olympic Committee], USAG, and Michigan State University failed their athletes, we need them first to be transparent,” said Jeanette Antolin, a survivor of Nassar’s abuse, during the press conference.

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“There must be a thorough investigation. Time is not on our side. We must act now. Time’s up. Every minute that goes by with unanswered questions, more innocent children can be harmed,” she added. “We cannot live in a society where young children’s lives are destroyed at the hands of trusted adults.”

Feinstein assured Antolin and the other survivors that this is only the beginning.

“On behalf of everyone, what I want to say is there is a very determined new day coming,” Feinstein said. “We are on your side. Our eyes are wide open now. So, things have got to change.”