The head of USA Gymnastics and other Olympic organizations went up against Congress on Wednesday in the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal involving former Dr. Larry Nassar that rocked the sports industry, facing tough questions and criticism on their responsibility for the crimes of the past and what they are doing to prevent abuse going forward.
USAG President and CEO Kerry Perry promised that her organization is "on a new path, with new leadership, and a commitment to ensure this never happens again."
She said she was "appalled and sickened by the despicable crimes of Larry Nassar" and assured that his victims' stories will be "at the core of every decision I make every day."
"We must do better," Perry said, speaking publicly about athlete abuse for the first time since taking over USAG in December 2017.
Leadership of USAG has been completely turned over in light of the more than 200 gymnasts who have testified to being sexually abused by Nassar, the team doctor now in prison for child pornography and sexual assault. Some gymnasts have called out USAG, as well as the U.S. Olympic Committee, for inaction in pursuing the cases regarding Nassar.
The acting CEO of the USOC, Susanne Lyons, said she was "deeply saddened and angry" to hear the stories of the many athletes who claimed they were abused. She added that the Olympic community "failed the people it was supposed to protect."
"I know we can do better," she told the committee. "We will do better."
Lyons outlined the changes USOC has made, including the doubling of funding to the U.S. Center for SafeSport (to $3.1 million a year), which was created by the USOC as an independent organization to investigate abuse cases in Olympic sports. It opened in March 2017 but has been overwhelmed by the number of cases that have come its way since it became the central clearinghouse for athletes in Olympic sports to bring their complaints. That organization's CEO, Shellie Pfohl, testified Wednesday as well.
The hearing became tense at times. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., demanded that the organizations take steps to help protect athletes now, not in the future. She railed against the Olympic officials for what she said was their lack of urgency.
"I'm not reassured by your testimony," she said.
Speaking to Lyons, Dingell said, "You keep telling me, 'We're working on it, we're setting up a study.' Is it going to take another five years? What are we doing to protect these young people right now, so this never happens again?"
Lyons admitted that the situation is "frustrating" and the organization seems "incompetent," adding that "if we could turn back the hands of time, as the Chairman said, I certainly wish we could, and make it move faster."
"The time for talk is over, and you need to walk your talk," Dingell concluded.
Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Ga., raised his voice and laid into Lyons for what he called her "insensitivity" on the subject of sexual abuse and called on her to resign immediately. He also criticized Perry for, he said, not taking responsibility for protecting athletes under her organization.
"I've sat here throughout this whole hearing and there's one thing I haven’t heard from any of you. … And that is 'I’m sorry.' … And that's despicable," Carter said.
Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., took time to correct the record, saying that the Olympic representatives present did acknowledge responsibility in their opening remarks.
Pfohl, of the SafeSport center told the committee that her organization responded to more than 500 reports in its first year and expects that number to nearly double this year. This time last year the center received 20 to 30 reports per month and are now receiving 20 to 30 reports per week, she added.
The CEO said the center has issued 169 sanctions against individuals, with 142 of them being permanently ineligible to coach or participate in Olympic or Paralympic sports. The names of those sanctioned are listed in the center's searchable online database.
Perry expanded on those numbers, saying that between January and April 2018, USAG opened 275 cases of abuse and referred 78 of them to the SafeSport center. While she said that "there wasn't a lot of great data" kept on abuse claims in the past, USAG is working on a database to better track and keep internal records on cases going forward.
The growing number of reports, Pfohl said, highlights the "critical need" for her center, which is aiming to build trust within the Olympic industry and "establish a culture where everyone feels safe, supported and empowered to report. She added that the ultimate goal is to "end all forms of abuse."
"Make no mistake, we work for athletes," Pfohl told the committee.
Lyons added that while the focus is on punishing abusers and treating victims, she said there needs to be work in preventing the abuse in the first place. She said the center is there to help with that, in providing education to the organizations and training centers.
Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., said that as a mom of four kids who play local sports, this was "a difficult hearing topic." She expressed concern that her kids and their teammates "could have been coached by someone who had a history of misconduct," pointing to the fact that lists of banned or suspended individuals have not always been public.
Walters asked Lyons if she would support a decision to require all Olympic governing bodies to make lists of sanctioned individuals available to the public. Lyons agreed that was a necessary step.
Congress has the ultimate authority over the USOC through the Ted Stevens Amateur Sports Act. There's some thought that reopening the act to clarify the relationship between the USOC and the governing bodies of Olympic sports would be worthwhile.
USA Volleyball CEO Jamie Davis said his organization has "long considered safety of our athletes to be a top priority" and that "many years ago, we recognized protecting our athletes and members as the right thing to do.
He spoke of the case of Rick Butler, a top youth coach who was accused of abusing at least six underage players. Butler had received a lifetime ban from volleyball in 1995, but Butler later requested the decision be rescinded. The rule was partially reversed in 2000 and Butler was allowed back into the sport. He was let go for good in January 2018.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., said Butler's case "really underscores the problem that has occurred over so many years. ... If someone has abused underage girls, reinstating him is so unacceptable. He should have been in jail. And now in today's world I think he would have. I hope he would have."
"This is another chance for us to discuss our role as a catalyst for change, another opportunity to apologize," Lyons said. "If Congress has more ideas to help us put more teeth into our action plans, we're listening."
USA Taekwondo, whose executive director also testified Wednesday, has been criticized for its handling of cases involving two-time Olympic gold medalist Steven Lopez and his brother/coach, Jean. Jean is permanently banned and Steven is on an interim suspension. Both brothers were under investigation in 2015 but were allowed to represent the United States at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics the following year while the cases were still open. Athletes such as Wieber and speedskater Bridie Farrell have portrayed Olympic sports organizations as valuing athletes only for their medal-winning potential and casting them aside once that is used up.
Last month, gymnasts Jamie Dantzscher and Jordyn Wieber were among those who testified in front of a Senate subcommittee looking into a similar issue. That subcommittee was supposed to hold a hearing Tuesday, but the hearing was canceled when most of the people on the witness list — including former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny and former USOC CEO Scott Blackmun — did not agree to appear. (Blackmun is battling cancer and unable to fly.)