When was the last time you heard about the creation of a blue-ribbon commission and thought to yourself, “Aha! Yes! Now everything will get fixed!”? Personally, I doubt you have ever thought that. The reputation of a blue-ribbon commission is that of something your government creates so that it can continue to do very little on a matter of great importance because it now has to wait for the commission report, whose eventual guidance it also will ignore. By the time the commission is done and the report is issued the American news media and much of the public will have moved on to the next disaster and nobody will be around to ask questions. Because it’s all been addressed, don’t you see, by the blue-ribbon commission and its report.
I bring this up for, oh, no reason.
Congress—the most powerful body of elected officials in our entire country—after years of story after story after story of sexual abuse in Olympic sports, going back to 2016, including more than 300 women saying they were sexually abused under the guise of medical treatment by former gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, announced on Thursday the creation of a blue-ribbon commission. This is after a congressional committee already held multiple hearings about sexual abuse within the Olympic movement and itself issued a lengthy report. But why have one report, when you can have two?
The commission is tucked inside a bill that already passed the U.S. Senate and on Thursday passed the House, with the next stop being the president’s office for a signature. The legislation contains many of the same promises as in a similar proposal last year. They include: requiring the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to fork over $20 million a year to SafeSport, the agency that’s supposed to prevent sexual abuse in the Olympic movement but really was set up to fail; creating protocols for Congress to dissolve the USOPC board of directors or decertify organizations, such as USA Gymnastics, that oversee individual Olympic sports; and mandating that one-third of the board members for national governing bodies and the USOPC be amateur athletes.
Now, the big-ticket item is the commission itself. It’s the first change highlighted in the press release from Rep. Diana DeGette’s office, probably because, as you dig into the details the revisions themselves, they appear far from being sweeping change. The proposal still does not address the inherent conflict of interest in SafeSport getting its funding from the USOPC while also investigating people connected to the USOPC. The representation of athletes on key boards is still not even at 50 percent. It ignores that Congress always had the power to get rid of the USOPC because Congress created the USOPC; legislators would just prefer you forget that they made this mess and instead think of the USOPC as something that got pulled out of a magician’s hat or simply always has been.
This is what America’s leadership has given athletes across the country after years of women and men recounting physical and emotional abuse they endured at the hands of coaches, the injuries they downplayed or ignored for fear of losing a spot, the sexual abuse that those in power told them, time and time again, was just a normal procedure they were too worked up about. After so much labor by athletes, all done under the belief that their stories could lead to meaningful change, our elected leaders have given them half-measures and a blue-ribbon commission. It’s slightly more than zero, but I refuse to pretend it is anything more than that.
Perhaps the greatest proof of the paltriness of this legislation is the fact that the USOPC, the organization under whose watch all these years of athlete exploitation happened, loves it.
There is nothing stopping Congress from realizing how cruel and corrupt the system it created has become and reaching for something truly revolutionary, like Norway’s Children’s Rights in Sports document. But then I read about Amazon warehouse workers being exposed to COVID-19, how many people still don’t have health insurance, and recall that this is the same Congress that allowed unemployment benefits to lapse during a global pandemic. Every day there is evidence in American life that our country cannot be bothered to take care of its own citizens. Why should Olympic athletes be any different?