USOC leader admits to failures in protecting athletes

The leader of the United States Olympic Committee said Wednesday that her organization has failed in the past to use its authority to protect athletes from abuse.

Susanne Lyons, who took over as the USOC's acting CEO in March, apologized during a Congressional hearing about sexual abuse in the Olympic movement and said the overseers of that movement need to do a better job of protecting young athletes.

In previous legal documents, leaders of the USOC have argued that the organization wasn't responsible for the well-being of athletes competing in Olympic sports. Attorneys representing the USOC in the past indicated that it was up to the national governing bodies for individual sports to oversee and enforce rules that protected their participants from abuse.

"We do view ourselves as responsible," Lyons said Wednesday. "I think if we have had a failing, it is that we have not adequately exercised our authority."

Lyons was one of six witnesses to testify in front of members of the House Subcommittee for Oversight and Investigations. She, along with top officials from the U.S. Center for SafeSport, USA Gymnastics, USA Volleyball, USA Taekwondo and USA Swimming, were asked to attend Wednesday's hearing to explain what the Olympic community is doing to improve the way it handles accusations of sexual assault.

The subcommittee's interest in the topic was prompted by the crimes of former gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar and was expanded to include complaints about mishandled claims of abuse in several other sports.

The USOC oversees and provides funding to nearly 50 different national governing bodies, which are largely autonomous when it comes to making decisions about structuring and sanctioning their sports. The USOC is able to enforce certain standards and policies on all of those groups by threatening to decertify an organization, put it on probation or take away funding if the rules are not followed.

Until March 2017, the national governing bodies were responsible for investigating and adjudicating claims of abuse made against members of their organizations. Conflicts of interest in that process that have come to light in the past decade led the USOC and the governing bodies to create the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a separate entity to investigate abuse allegations.

The idea for the Center for SafeSport first appeared in 2010 in the wake of a sexual abuse scandal involving USA Swimming.

Representatives at Wednesday's hearing asked the witnesses in front of them why it took seven years to implement the program and get it off the ground. Lyons said funding, complicated insurance issues and a struggle to get all governing bodies to agree to certain policies made the process slow. She said she regrets that it took so long.

"It may have saved some of the tragedy that occurred," Lyons said.

Shellie Pfohl, the president and CEO of the Center for SafeSport, said her office receives roughly 20-30 reports about abuse every week. That number has increased dramatically over the past several months; they received roughly 20-30 reports per month a year ago. Pfohl attributes the uptick to the #MeToo movement addressing sexual assault and the additional attention focused on the issue during Nassar's sentencing hearings in January.

Pfohl said SafeSport doesn't have the money it needs to investigate all reports as quickly as it should. SafeSport is funded by the USOC, contributions from the national governing bodies and by other fundraising efforts. Pfohl said she currently has a staff of 15 and will have a better idea at how many more resources need to be added within the next six weeks.

The USOC doubled its contribution to SafeSport's annual budget to $3.1 million earlier this year. Each national governing body contributes money based on its size. USA Swimming, one of the larger sport organizations, would be willing to add to the $43,000 it gives SafeSport annually, according to its president, Tim Hinchey. Pfohl said SafeSport is also waiting to hear back about potential grants from the federal government that could add to the budget.

Members of the subcommittee raised concerns about the urgency with which the USOC and others were addressing their systemic issues with abuse. The chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Gregg Harper from Mississippi, said he hopes to have the witnesses return to Washington later this year for an update on their progress.