The USA’s Protections for DanceSport Athletes and Officials

I have been following some of the commentary that has arisen on social media since USA Dance sent a cease and desist letter to the NDCA on January 7, 2015 regarding the NDCA’s disciplining/fining of officials who adjudicate or officiate at USA Dance competitions. It is not my intent today to comment on that action, but rather to discuss how the U.S. Amateur Sports Act came into being, as I believe this discussion may throw some light on the current dispute.

Prior to 1978, Olympic Trials in the U.S., in which athletes qualified for a place on the Olympic team, were conducted to a large degree by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Arbitrary eligibility rules in Track and Field resulted in the banning of athletes. The result was that athletes were being denied the opportunity to widely compete, which compromised their standing when they went abroad to represent the U.S. Things got so bad that finally Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) sponsored legislation entitled the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, that established the USOC and henceforth required that all Olympic Trials be held under the supervision of the USOC, with the AAU relegated to managing youth athletics. This legislation also provided for a grievance process for athletes and officials as outlined in the USOC Constitution. The Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act passed both Houses of Congress and was signed into law by the President in 1978.

In 2011 and 2012, the WDSF was taking steps to suspend athletes and officials who competed outside the WDSF. At my request, the USOC provided me, as national president of USA Dance, with a letter to take to the 2012 WDSF Annual General Assembly in Berlin. In part the letter emphasized three main points:

“First, the USOC is a recognized National Olympic Committee (NOC) member of the International Olympic Committee (lOC). As such, the USOC and its member National Governing Bodies (NGBs), including USA Dance, are obliged to comply with the Olympic Charter. The Olympic Charter recognizes certain fundamental rights of athletes, one of which pertains to the opportunity of an athlete to participate in sport. As stated in the Charter, Fundamental Principles of Olympism, Paragraph 4, “[t]he practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport … which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Suspending athletes for competing in athletic competitions for no other reason than the competitions are sponsored by a competing organization, is in the view of the USOC, a violation of the Olympic Charter.”

“Second, the USOC, and its NGBs, including USA Dance, must abide by US law, which protects an athlete’s right to compete pursuant to the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (the “Act”). This protection is specifically set forth in Sections 220503(8) and 220524(5) of the Act. Specifically, Section 220503(8) places an obligation on the USOC, and on NGBs, including USA Dance, to protect an athlete’ s opportunity to participate in athletic competition.”

“Third, as a matter of fair play, an athlete’s right to compete should not be abridged for non-athletic reasons. Athletes should be afforded with opportunities to compete so that they can develop their skills and have the benefit of measuring themselves against other athletes on the field of play. Rules that restrict athletes from competing run counter to that objective.”

Therefore, under the U.S. Amateur Sports Act and the USOC Constitution, USA Dance could not and would not engage in the banning of USA Dance member athletes and officials who participated in athletic events outside the WDSF family of competitions. I read this letter out loud to the assembled delegates at the WDSF Annual General Assembly and it, along with similar comments made from other delegates played a significant role in helping to overturn the WDSF’s banning provisions in 2012. As the U.S. Amateur Sports Act protects the rights of officials and coaches as well as athletes, I believe it is clear that the USOC would be ill disposed toward the types of actions presently engaged in by the NDCA to limit the officiating opportunities of its registrants.

A distinction must be made, however, between protections afforded to American athletes and officials under the U.S. Amateur Sports Act, and protections that may or may not exist for the athletes and officials in other countries.   The national federations and Olympic Committies in other countries have their own provisions for athletes and officials, which may more tightly control their right to participate and allow for actions to be taken against them that would not be tolerated or allowed in the U.S.

For this reason, the current WDSF policy is to allow an individual national federation to establish its own internal provisions governing its athletes and officials that are in line with the laws in that country. This has resulted in some countries limiting athletic opportunities for their athletes and officials in a manner that could not be done in the U.S. In fact this is the only reasonable and legal position for the WDSF to take as a member of the IOC, since it is not empowered to overstep national laws that exist in the over 90 countries which have WDSF-member DanceSport Federations.

I have seen arguments that USA Dance and the USOC should be stepping in to protect the DanceSport athletes and officials in other nations where some form of banning is still taking place. This type of thinking is naïve and reflects an ignorance of the autonomy afforded by the IOC to each nation to manage its athletic programs under its own laws as long as they remain in compliance with the Olympic Charter. The USOC and by extension USA Dance, is charged with protecting the rights of American athletes and officials. Its charter’s scope does not extend beyond that.

I have also seen comments to the effect that the WDSF is seeking to control DanceSport in the U.S. via an increased number of WDSF competitions. Such competitions are in fact being provided in order to increase DanceSport opportunities in the U.S., and organizers voluntarily bid on the chance to host them.   While the WDSF can mandate that international competitions run under a WDSF sanction must follow WDSF rules, it has no  authority over member federation competitions run nationally such as those under the sanctioning authority of USA Dance (closed competitions), since USA Dance’s status as a USOC-recognized National Governing Body requires that USA Dance be autonomous in its governance of the sport.

Therefore, the current dispute between the NDCA and USA Dance concerning the limits being placed upon NDCA-registered officials can only be resolved in one way:  here in America taking into consideration American laws including the right- to-participate framework of the U.S. Amateur Sports Act.  Any international DanceSport disputes will need to be resolved taking into consideration the laws in place in the countries where such disputes arise and are adjudicated.

 

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