Safer Sports, Safer Girls

In February 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) talked with eight survivors of sports-related sexual abuse during what she later described as “one of the most disturbing, emotional meetings I’ve held in 25 years in the Senate.” One month later, she introduced the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act with Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Susan Collins (R-Maine)—and less than one year later, it passed with broad bipartisan support through both the Senate and the House. On Feb. 14, President Donald Trump signed the bill into law.

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The Safe Sport Act amends the Victims of Child Abuse Act as well as the Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act to make everyone within the Olympic movement and other sports organizations mandatory reporters for child sexual abuse, provide monetary damages to victims, extend the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases and mandate abuse prevention education by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which opened last year. Though the law’s success comes on the heels of the trials of Larry Nassar, the now-convicted Olympic doctor accused of sexually assaulting more than 265 girls over a span of 20 years, advocates, athletes and sporting organizations know that such legislation is long overdue.

A Washington Post report in November 2017 found that more than 290 officials and coaches connected to Olympic sports organizations in the U.S. had been publicly accused of sexual misconduct in the preceding 36 years; more than 175 had been convicted. Since 1991, nearly 150 coaches have been officially banned for life by USA Swimming, mostly for charges of sexual misconduct. And just last year, the executive director of USA Taekwondo, Keith Ferguson, ended his tenure after three stories in USA Today revealed a pattern of ignoring and covering up sexual misconduct allegations.

This piece appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Ms. Become a Ms. member today to get a copy before it hits newsstands.

“I want to thank each and every survivor who continues to shine the light on these horrific crimes,” Feinstein said in a recent statement. “It’s time we hold to account not just the abusers but also the institutions who continue to protect them. Their time is up.”

Nearly two decades ago, USA Gymnastics knew they had a problem. Then-president Bob Colarossi wrote a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee, warning members to take the threat of child sexual abuse more seriously. “This is not an issue that can be wished away,” he wrote. “The USOC can either position itself as a leader in the protection of young athletes or it can wait until it is forced to deal with the problem under much more difficult circumstances.”

Almost 20 years later, this new legislation will finally force the USOC to do something about it.

“Opening SafeSport and championing a new federal law that provides legal protections for athletes is step one; it is not the end of the #MeToo movement in Olympic sports,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer, Title IX lawyer and CEO of Champion Women, wrote in January. “The push to change an unhealthy culture that has given coaches unlimited power will require that same type of dedication over many years, but it is a worthy endeavor.”

Carmen Rios is the Digital Editor at Ms. and Contributing Editor and Co-Founder of Argot Magazine; her work has also appeared at BuzzFeed, Bitch, Mic, MEL, Everyday Feminism and Autostraddle, where she was previously Community Director and Feminism Editor. Like everyone else in LA, she once had a podcast; unlike everyone else, she stays pretty zen in traffic. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr.

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