On Sept. 15, 2021, several USA Gymnastics gymnasts testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee regarding their experiences with sexual assault and the failings of several authoritative bodies to prevent and investigate their allegations when they were first raised in 2015. According to their testimony, supported by the findings of a July 2021 Office of Inspector General (OIG) report, neither the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), nor USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) took their sexual misconduct reports of USA Gymnastics team doctor, Larry Nassar, seriously. As a result of initial inaction, numerous other gymnasts faced similar abuse, and survivors, many of whom are household names, will continue to live with the trauma for the rest of their lives.
Student athlete abuse has been a focus of U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in recent years, with the OCR fining several prominent institutions millions of dollars for violations, including failure to investigate complaints of sexual assault and abuse. Yet, institutions, even with federal fines, subsequent civil settlements in the hundreds of millions of dollars and reputational damage, still face challenges making the necessary policy and process changes needed to keep student athletes safe. For example, many of the sentiments echoed in the gymnasts’ congressional testimony continue to be issues for elite athletics programs, as demonstrated by the release of a 2020 OCR report of a review of a large public institution. This particular report identified several violations of Title IX regulations (i.e., regulations that prohibit sex-based discrimination in any school or other education program that receives federal money), including failure to respond promptly and equitably to complaints of sexual harassment (including student complaints), failure to report complaints to appropriate offices (including reports coaches engaging in gendered verbal attacks, slurs and demeaning statements toward student-athletes) and delays in investigating cases.
After powerful testimony by the USA gymnasts, many students and parents want to know what specific steps institutions are taking to keep their athletes safe. When we, as Baker Tilly risk advisors, work with institutions to evaluate their athletics safety policies and processes, we evaluate a number of areas and ask questions, including the following:
Most institutions make student safety and wellbeing a central tenant of their mission, and athletes are students first. Institutions that evaluate their athlete safety and compliance programs by asking the above questions and making the necessary changes when gaps are identified can keep student athletes safe and prevent future testimonies like the ones the USA gymnasts bravely shared on Sept. 15, 2021.
For more information, or to learn more about how Baker Tilly’s higher education risk advisory specialists can help your institution, contact our team.