The term whistleblower is a sports reference. Referees blow the whistle when an athlete does something wrong on the field. But, when wrong-doing happens off the field – such as abuse or doping — athletes sometimes have to make the call.

Often, it doesn’t go well. Two bills pending in Congress would offer more protection for athletes who come forward with information on misdeeds.

Recent amendments to a pending bill aim to strengthen whistleblower protections for Olympic and amateur athletes.The “Empowering Olympic and Amateur Athletes Act” now includes anti-retaliation language. The amendments would also ensure that the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a non-profit that investigates abuse of amateur athletes, reports cases involving children to authorities. Like teachers and others who work with children, the organization would be held to the reporting requirement of the Federal Victims of Child Abuse Act. The organization would also be subject to an annual audit.

The bill is designed to address ongoing criticism of the agency, including some issues highlighted in an October Orange County Register story. The story described the frustrated parents who say the agency has been slow to address charges that two Chicago-area gymnastics coaches physically, verbally and emotionally abused athletes.

The case “reflects the challenges facing the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic created and financed U.S. Center for SafeSport. Congress, former Olympians, athlete rights advocates and safe sport experts have complained since the center opened in March 2017 that it is underfunded and understaffed,” according to the story. A spokesman for the center told the OCR that the agency gets about 250 reports of abuse per month and needs to handle the most serious charges first.

Doping is another area that is fraught for athletic whistleblowers. The Washington Post reported this week on international objections to the pending Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act. The World Anti-Doping Agency argues that the bill, named for the whistleblower who exposed Russia’s state-sponsored doping scheme, gives the US too much authority outside the US.

The bill offers protection for athlete whistleblowers and calls for fines and prison sentences for those involved in doping. Travis Tygart, the head of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, told the Post that the bill recognizes doping  as fraud “and when it’s done by organizations or institutions — whether it’s a sport organization or a nation — that it’s going to be put on the same level as other types of fraud.”

A recent study by two British researchers concluded that a better system is needed to enable more people to report doping in sport.

For this to happen, whistleblowers need practical and emotional support at every step in the whistleblowing journey. Evidence-based whistleblowing policies –- with explicit protections for whistleblowers and clear guidelines on when and how to report – are a key starting point for this and should be implemented and enforced. And while anonymous reporting hotlines like the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Speak Up! platform and accompanying Whistleblower programme are a huge step in the right direction, research has not kept pace with these advances in policy and practice

Read more:

 WBUR: An interview with Kara Goucher, who levelled doping allegations against coach Alberto Salazar. In October, the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) banned Salazar from track and field for four years. “You know, a lot of people think that I am a liar, that my husband is a liar, but the evidence is there that he broke the rules,” Goucher said.

Research: Whistleblowing athletes shouldn’t have to choose between their careers and the truth.