Olympic commission suggests wide-ranging changes to SafeSport and USOPC

A commission charged with reviewing the Olympic structure in the U.S. is calling for Congress to consider wide-ranging changes, including government funding of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, severing grassroots from the elite sports system and even removing the word “amateur” in a potential rewrite of the 1978 law that created the modern-day Olympic structure.

The commission, established by Congress in 2020, released its 275-page report Friday, concluding in part that "we need a better long-term vision for how we organize Olympic- and Paralympic-movement sports in America.”

The tension between grassroots and elite sports is a common theme throughout the document. Untethering the two, the report argued, could benefit its two main targets for reform — the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the SafeSport center.

A big focus of the report was on the Denver-based center, which was established in 2017 to oversee sex-abuse cases in Olympic sports. It receives around $20 million annually from the USOPC and its sports affiliates, though the report called for a rethinking of the revenue stream, including having the government fund it. The center has long been dealing with an overload of cases and has been criticized for taking too long to resolve them.

Center CEO Ju’Riese Colon said the current funding level “is insufficient to meet the growing demands on the Center.”

“Regardless of whether the additional funding continues to come through the USOPC as required by federal law, or directly from Congressional appropriations, it needs to increase substantially to allow the Center to better fulfill our mission of keeping America’s athletes safe,” she said.

But some data embedded in the report suggested the center has bigger issues than mere funding. The report published polling information, previously reported by The Associated Press, that found 25.4% of 1,752 respondents to a commission survey found the SafeSport Center to be “not so effective” or “not effective at all.” Another 41.4% said it was only “somewhat effective.”

The report suggested the center “reimagine” the way it operates at the youth and grassroots level — a move that could significantly decrease its workload.

While the center took a big portion of the heat, the USOPC also was criticized for being an unwieldy, not-too-transparent organization that would benefit from increased oversight and a streamlining of its mission. It seized on a long-running complaint about the committee — executive compensation.

“The stark difference ... between incomes for executives and support for athletes was alarming,” the report read.

It called for complete independence of the Team USA Athletes Commission, which now runs under the umbrella of the USOPC; an overhaul of governance processes; better access for Paralympic athletes; and a rethinking of the U.S. bid process for Olympic Games. Los Angeles will host the Summer Games in 2028 and Salt Lake City is all but assured to host the Winter Games in 2034.

USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland sounded largely receptive to working with those who created the report, but also expressed frustration in a letter she sent to Olympic insiders that was obtained by AP.

“A significant aspect that was not acknowledged is the profound evolution that has taken place throughout the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Movement since the Commission’s inception," she said.

Prodded by Congress, the USOPC has, in fact, rewritten key portions of its bylaws to try to ensure better oversight of the more than four dozen sports organizations that fall under its umbrella and more rights and representation for athletes.

The commission suggested some changes might be easier if a new federal office was created to oversee grassroots sports that are now largely under the auspices of the USOPC. It would presumably free up the USOPC to focus solely on its central objective of supporting high-performance athletes and Olympic teams.

All of that suggests a possible overhaul of the 1978 “Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act,” which set the template for the modern-day Olympic movement in the United States. Among its key tenets is that the government not fund Olympic athletes, which makes the U.S. an outlier among the 200-plus countries that field Olympic teams. Another was that Olympic athletes were, by their very nature, amateurs — a reality that has long since passed.

One recommendation is that any rewrite of the law exclude the word “amateur," so as to remove any inference that athletes aren't the key cogs of the multibillion-dollar business the Olympics have become.

“Words matter, but actions matter more,” the report said in commenting on this proposal. “That is why Congress should use this opportunity to recognize under law that American athletes ... have certain fundamental rights, including a safe and abuse-free environment, name-image-likeness (NIL) rights, freedom from retaliation, an affordable fee structure for national-team-selection competition events, and a timely dispute-resolution process as it relates to competition and team selection.”


AP Olympics:

Eddie Pells, The Associated Press