Senators Ernst, Shaheen seeks bipartisan justice for our young Olympians

As Published in: The Des Moines Register

By Senators Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH)

“I just signed your death warrant,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said as she condemned former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar to up to 175 years in prison.

It was a cathartic moment for his victims and for the nation.  But it was a moment of only partial justice, as not all of the organizations and individuals responsible for Nassar’s predatory behavior have been held to account.

Because the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) operates under a federal charter and its athletes compete under the American flag, the Senate has a responsibility to expand the investigation beyond the narrow criminal charges adjudicated in Michigan.  That’s why we’ve introduced bipartisan legislation to establish a Senate special committee, which would be uniquely capable of conducting a truly independent and comprehensive inquiry into what has been called the worst sex abuse scandal in the history of sports. The special committee would also determine whether the USOC has so abused its charter that it should be revoked.

We recently had the privilege of meeting with three of the women who courageously testified at Nassar’s sentencing hearing in January. We thanked these impressive women for their advocacy to protect young athletes in the future.  In turn, they stressed to us the importance of exposing the full scope of the sex abuse scandal at the USOC. We are determined not to fail these women the way so many officials have failed them in the past. 

Between 1995 and 2015, 14 girls and women are known to have informed adults in positions of responsibility about Nassar’s abuse, but their complaints were dismissed or minimized.  His reign of terror was stopped only when a 15th woman, Rachel Denhollander, filed charges with Michigan police in 2016. This was not a simple case of negligence or failed oversight on the part of the USOC, USA Gymnastics and other institutions; there is ample evidence that many were alerted to Nassar’s behavior and found excuses to look the other way.

“I don’t think people understand just how bad this was,” Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman told Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post. “I don’t think they have all the pieces and understand how USA Gymnastics and the USOC created the perfect environment for this monster.” 

What happened at the USOC was a systemic abdication of their responsibility to ensure the safety of young athletes. To prevent a recurrence, the USOC, USA Gymnastics and others must be held accountable. Last year, two Senate committees conducted hearings on sex abuse in Olympic sports. On Jan. 29, the House followed the Senate’s lead in passing Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) bill, which we co-sponsored, requiring amateur athletic associations to immediately report allegations of sex abuse to local or federal law enforcement.  This is important progress.  Now the Senate must establish a special committee to conduct, on behalf of the American people, an authoritative, independent accounting of how the USOC, USA Gymnastics and others who did nothing as a sexual predator assaulted girls as young as six years old over a period of nearly three decades.

As with Senate special committees created in the past, the one created by our legislation would have an undivided focus on its investigative mission, with the power to subpoena documents and compel testimony under oath and in public from coaches, executives and others.  The special committee would be charged with reporting its findings, recommending steps to ensure the safety of our young athletes in the future, and determining whether the USOC should forfeit its federal charter. The bill establishing the special committee will stipulate that at least half of its members shall be women. 

Over the past year, Americans have experienced an awakening about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace; the complicity of organizations and executives in these crimes; and the system that imposes silence on victims.  It is time, now, to expose the scope and nature of sexual abuse committed against vulnerable girls and boys under supervision of the USOC and its affiliates.  These athletes represent America and all Americans at the games – it is our responsibility to ensure they are protected.

At the sentencing hearing, Kyle Stephens powerfully rebuked Nassar: “Little girls don’t stay little forever.  They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”  But for Ms. Stephens and other survivors, sending their abuser to prison is not enough. They deserve the kind of authoritative national inquiry that a Senate special committee is uniquely capable of conducting, and they deserve action by Congress to protect young athletes in the future.