Senator Ernst Delivers Remarks at Hearing on Preventing Abuse of Olympic Athletes

“Many children grow up admiring Olympic athletes… I want that dream to live on for generations to come, but there is much work to be done first.”

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) delivered an opening statement at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security hearing entitled “Preventing Abuse in Olympic and Amateur Athletics: Ensuring a Safe and Secure Environment for our Athletes.”

Senators Ernst and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) have called for a special Senate committee to investigate the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics regarding how a team doctor, Larry Nassar, was able to sexually abuse gymnasts for decades.

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The full transcript of the senator’s remarks can be found below.

“Thank you very much Chairman Moran, Ranking Member Blumenthal, and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you, truly, for giving us the opportunity to testify today.

“I want to thank Senator Shaheen, for joining me to discuss the importance of ensuring a safe environment for our athletes.

“Like many Americans, I was horrified to hear of the crimes committed by Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who abused hundreds of young athletes.

“The actions of this man, and the individuals and institutions that facilitated and protected his behavior, are reprehensible. They also point to wider cultural issues within the amateur athletic community. 

“It was a failure at all levels, and symptomatic of broader problems facing our society on sexual assault, rape, harassment and abuse.

“These types of failures are the reason I have worked with my colleagues in Congress on reforms to ensure sexual misconduct across society is reported, responded to and taken seriously, and ideally, prevented. 

“You see, I was previously a volunteer counselor at a crisis center that provided shelter and support to survivors of abuse and sexual assault. 

“I heard stories of women fleeing domestic abusers, suffering not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. 

“I also took calls on our hotline from people that had been raped and sexually abused.

“Abuse like this is not something you can just simply forget – it stays with you, and these survivors’ lives have been forever altered.

“It is through this lens that I come to the issue before us today. I want to focus on three key points that Congress should consider when investigating this tragedy:

“First, we must take survivors’ stories seriously and ensure they are heard.

“Like you, Senator Shaheen and I have heard the terrible accounts from victims of Dr. Nassar.

“One of the most horrific parts of their stories is that when these athletes reported the abuse to those they trusted –people within their university, their gymnastics club, Olympic leadership or people that their parents paid to grow them into strong and healthy athletes – they were shut down, they were ignored, and told there was nothing to see here.

“One athlete upon reporting her abuse was told that, quote: she was fortunate to receive the best medical care possible from a world-renowned doctor, end quote.

“Another reported that she was told she, quote: must be misunderstanding what was going on, end quote.

“Officials even created false excuses to cover up Nassar’s absence for his shameful behavior.

“This breaks my heart and angers me, as these men and women, and often times, children, carried this burden for so many years with no help from those they trusted.

“Even more maddening is that these organizations rake in millions of dollars a year and enjoy tax-exempt status.

“Second, we have to examine the underlying factors that allowed this abuse to occur.

“Answering questions like who knew what? What disincentives existed within the Olympic community that caused people to choose inaction when bad things happened?

“There were some half-hearted attempts to institute accountability once the Olympic house started to crumble – but this was too late and the damage was done.

“Where I’m from, when people see something going wrong, they say something. We don’t pass the buck and we don’t “wait and see.” We listen, we act and we help one another.

“There are people within the Olympic community that felt it was not their responsibility to report abuse, or claim that liability prevented them from acting. 

“Ethics, morals, and a sense of human dignity demand for people to do better.

“Instead, abusers were given more responsibility, more money, more prestige, more autonomy and more cover. 

“Let’s be clear – this problem is not limited to Larry Nassar. There has developed a culture in the Olympics, which prioritizes winning medals over the health and welfare of the athletes. 

“USOC recognized this in their open letter in January where they stated that “we must change the culture of the sport.”

“Third, we must take decisive action to address deficiencies in the system. 

“Today’s hearing will give witnesses an opportunity to explain themselves and hopefully get some honest answers. 

“When Senator Shaheen and I called on USOC CEO Scott Blackmun to resign, we viewed that as the beginning of a long sentence on holding Olympic leadership accountable.

“I am concerned, that despite the stated intention to change the culture of Olympic sport, too much of the old culture persists.

“The Committee has done much work to address these issues, including the Safe Sport Authorization Act, which I cosponsored. I think the law sets a good framework that will be beneficial to our athletes and provide guardrails to protect them.

“Additionally, Senator Shaheen and I introduced legislation in January calling for a special committee to investigate these matters.

“In conclusion, these athletes represent our great nation on the world stage. They are called to embody American ideals of sportsmanship, hard work and integrity. 

“This negative underbelly of Olympic sport jeopardizes these ideals and makes a mockery of the hard work athletes put in to succeed.

“Many children grow up admiring Olympic athletes, dreaming that one day they, too, could be on the winner’s podium to accept a gold medal for their country. 

“I want that dream to live on for generations to come, but there is much work to be done first. 

“Thank you Chairman, Ranking Member, I appreciate the opportunity.”