Everyone knows the saying about talk being cheap but action, real action, is when you put your money where your mouth is.
The United States Congress, presented this week with an extraordinary opportunity to take real action amid the Larry Nassar crisis enveloping USA Gymnastics and Michigan State, made it seem like it did, indeed, do more than talk the talk.
Indeed, after passage of a measure Tuesday, lawmakers and advocates said Congress had come up big.
Is that so? Really?
Or can — indeed, should — the painful argument be made that, yet once more, the grown-ups, given the duty of looking after the children and young adults in their care, failed?
Outrage has its place. In the Nassar matter, there is indisputably so much about which to be outraged. At the same time, when the opportunity presents itself to turn that outrage into constructive change, and in particular to back such change with hard dollars, what to say when what is trumpeted on Capitol Hill as a big victory for survivors might well arguably be seen just as reasonably as opportunity lost?
On Tuesday, spurred by testimony in the Nassar case, Congress passed a bill that, among other points, requires the prompt report of abuse in Olympic governing bodies to the authorities.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the Democrat from California, proposed the measure last March. It passed the Senate in November. On Monday evening, a companion bill passed the House. On Tuesday, a finalized version went back through the Senate.
The measure now goes to President Trump.
Proponents hailed passage as significant if not historic.
"Right after they spoke, bam, it passes the House," Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a civil rights attorney and now chief executive of a non-profit called Champion Women, said at a Tuesday news conference, referring to the scores of women who testified against Nasser.
Comparing the passage of the bill with 1972's landmark Title IX, Hogshead-Makar, who is also a 1984 Los Angeles Games swimming gold medalist, also said:
"The passage of this statute is just the beginning. We’re at the starting line right now. Everybody: it’s going to take a village to change a culture of sports that values emotional harm, that thinks that’s motivation. That’s going to take a sea change of different thinking ... that being physically and emotionally abusive was normal, and that’s what sets somebody up for sexual abuse
"… Trust me, it’s in every single sport and, as I like to describe it is, it’s kind of like ice cream, there’s 47 different flavors … it happens across sport. I’m thrilled we now have statutory protections for these eight million children.
Feinstein, for her part, wrote:
“I want to thank each and every survivor who continues to shine the light on these horrific crimes. It’s time we hold to account not just the abusers but also the institutions who continue to protect them. Their time is up.”
Similarly, from Senator John Thune, Republican of South Dakota, chairman of the Senate’s commerce committee, which has oversight over the Olympic scene: “Horrific sexual abuse and tepid responses from organizations that exist to support the careers of U.S. Olympic athletes are nothing short of a betrayal.”
And from Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida: “… By putting new safeguards into law to protect athletes from abuse we’re sending a message that this cannot and must not happen again.”
Is that the message?
Or was what Congress ended up with itself a tepid response?
The devil, as always, is in the details.
Two key points of what the bill does:
One, it says that adults associated with Olympic sports organizations must contact law enforcement or child welfare authorities within 24 hours upon learning “of facts that give reason to suspect that a child has suffered an incident of child abuse, including sexual abuse …”
Failure to report a sexual abuse allegation could lead to up to one year in jail.
Reasonable people can debate whether being a federal crime is alone a sufficient deterrent, or whether being a misdemeanor and not a felony is itself enough.
Moving along, two: it extends the statute of limitations in civil court: to age 28 or up to 10 years after the reasonable discovery of a violation, whichever is later. What does this mean? More time for an abuse survivor to bring a lawsuit seeking redress:
Now, the single key point of what the measure does not do:
The best part of this bill was that it contemplated federal funding for the U.S. Center for SafeSport, the single organization in the entire country set up for just this purpose — an independent body mandated to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct in the 47 Olympic national governing bodies across the United States.
So despite all the outrage, all the talk, an alternative read of what happened on Capitol Hill:
After a week of heartbreaking testimony in a Michigan courtroom, Congress talked but then stripped the dollars from this bill — $1 million a year to the center for fiscal years 2018 through 2021.
Initially, the would-be allocation was in the Senate version of the bill.
The House, though, moved forward Monday without that money, 406-3. The Senate on Tuesday, by voice vote, approved a final version.
In cutting SafeSport funding, it’s not like the House didn’t know what it was doing.
Letters were read into the Congressional Record saying that funding for SafeSport were "critical" or a "significant step."
Speaking Monday as part of the debate over the measure, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, said she had a “concern”:
“The bill unanimously passed by the Senate would authorize funding to be provided to the U.S. Center for SafeSport in the amount of $1 million for each of the next four years. Unfortunately, the version of the bill before us strips this funding authorization. I believe we should have taken up the Senate bill without amendment.
“SafeSport is charged with important responsibilities under this bill with respect to receiving and investigating all allegations of abuse and setting policies to prevent future abuse, so this bill has taken out that language from the Senate.
“It is critical that we ensure that the center is provided the resources for those things to be done immediately. By doing so, I hope we will prevent the type of abuse and suffering perpetrated by the people like Larry Nassar.”
She said a few moments later, “Mr. Speaker, accordingly, I encourage my colleagues to join me in supporting this important legislation. I hope we will see fit to fund it.”
Next to speak, Ted Poe, a Republican from Texas, also from Houston, said, “Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the comments of my friend from Texas. Just so it is clear, I agree with her on the money. It should have been funded but it was ruled an earmark, and we can’t do earmarks anymore. We have to go through another process to get that funding. A good reason why we ought to have earmarks.”
Acknowledging that earmarks have been a Congress no-no for several years now, it first seems odd that an independent agency based in Denver would be considered the recipient of an earmark for a measure initiated by the senior senator from California and, moreover, that Congress couldn’t, in this context, find a way to allocate $1 million annually to the SafeSport Center — a trifle, given the federal budget — especially when compared to the outrage the Nassar matter has fueled.
Then again, and this is both an uncomfortable and perplexing truth, funding for SafeSport has been a challenge from the get-go.
In 2010, the U.S. Olympic Committee first formed a working group to develop misconduct policy standards and requirements for those roughly four dozen NGBs. In 2013, a second working group recommended the creation of the center.
In 2014, the USOC board gave that the go-ahead, intending to open the center in 2015.
The center did not open, however, until March 2017, USOC officials citing fundraising difficulties.
The center’s projected five-year operating budget is $25 million, or $5 million annually, currently significantly underwritten by the USOC with the help of those NGBs.
That’s why the prospect of federal funding would have made such an impact. The center would be — obviously — more credibly independent if the government provided financial backing .And it would be — obviously — more effective with more resource.
“Though we are glad to see justice finally served in this case,” Mr. Poe also said Monday, referring to the Nassar matter, “we must take appropriate measures to prevent this from occurring again. “This bill will do that.”
Poe, recall, talked about “another process” to secure SafeSport funding, without articulating what that process might be, or if it might even be feasible.
"We'll get that addressed in another way," Thune said at a Tuesday news conference, again providing no details or timeline.
Here’s a suggestion: get on it. And for that matter — any and all of you in the private sector, because the business world can exert leverage or, for that matter, make its own financial contributions. Once more, the adults have a responsibility to channel all that outrage to fix what needs fixing.
Process, policy and reform take money.
Let’s not pretend otherwise.