This article was originally published in The National Law Review
On October 30, 2020, President Trump signed into law sweeping Olympic reform legislation. The “Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020” provides increased oversight of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s board of directors and governing bodies and includes a whistleblower protection permitting the athletes to report abuses and violations of law to their coaches, U.S. law enforcement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Congress.
U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced this sweeping legislation in July of 2019, following an eighteen-month investigation into systemic abuse within the U.S. Olympic movement. The joint investigation was launched the day after Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison and included four subcommittee hearings, interviews with Olympic athletes and survivors, and the retrieval of over 70,000 pages of documents.
As chairman of the Judiciary Committee during the 115th Congress, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) developed legislation with Senator Feinstein to require coaches and instructors in amateur athletics to report suspected abuse cases to the authorities. The legislation contains Grassley’s whistleblower protections and funding accountability provisions that were a part of his SAFESPORT Act (S. 2838). Grassley authored protections from retaliation for those who report abuse in amateur sports, which were incorporated into the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act.
Senator Grassley wanted to ensure that the definition of protected activities covered under the new law would be effective in practice. Whistleblower attorney Stephen M. Kohn recommended to Senate staff that the scope of protected activity should include a wide range of offices, including Congress, federal law enforcement, the EEOC, along with fully protecting internal disclosures to coaches and other officials who supervise these programs. These recommendations were incorporated into the final law. The final definition of retaliation protects a broad range of offices where whistleblowers can report allegations for which they will be protected against retaliation. The relevant section of the law reads as follows:
‘‘(11) ‘retaliation’ means any adverse or discriminatory action, or the threat of an adverse or discriminatory action, including removal from a training facility, reduced coaching or training, reduced meals or housing, and removal from competition, carried out against a protected individual as a result of any communication, including the filing of a formal complaint, by the protected individual or a parent or legal guardian of the protected individual relating to the allegation of physical abuse, sexual harassment, or emotional abuse, with—
‘‘(A) the Center;
‘‘(B) a coach, trainer, manager, administrator, or official associated with the corporation; ‘‘(C) the Attorney General;
‘‘(D) a Federal or State law enforcement authority; ‘
‘(E) the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission; or
The Act also creates an Office of the Athlete Ombudsman setting forth specific human resources’ procedures for the Office. The Office will provide independent advice to reporting parties concerning the role, responsibility, and authority of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, (the Center). It will also advise on the relative merits of engaging legal counsel; and the factual allegations that may support the ability of the Center to pursue a claim of abuse. This subsection also requires all information communicated to the Office to be confidential with limited exceptions. Finally, the subsection specifically prohibits retaliation measures taken or threatened against any employee or member for disclosing information to the Office and requires independence from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in carrying out its duties.
Senators Moran and Blumenthal issued a statement upon the passage of the law: “This law would not be possible were it not for the athletes and courageous survivors who traveled to Washington, shared their stories and demanded change so that future generations of athletes can train, compete and succeed without fear of abuse. We are grateful to our colleagues, athlete advocates and the many survivors who helped create and advocate for this law to bring about change in the Olympic movement and allowed us to keep our promise to the survivors to get this bill across the finished line.”