All but one member of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Board of Directors must resign.
A new board must separate the position of athlete ombudsman from the USOC paid staff, so athletes can feel their grievances, large and small, get an independent hearing.
USOC sponsors, not Congress, should lead the drive for those changes in the aftermath of a damning report about the way USOC leadership mishandled the horrific Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
But the board could start the process of replacing itself at its meeting today in California.
Nassar was sentenced Jan. 24 to 40-to-175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes after some 200 of his victims courageously testified against him in court. But that testimony did not fill in all the blanks about the case.
In the months that have followed, there remained many critical and unanswered questions about how the USOC leadership had handled - and is handling - the worst and most gruesome events in the history of Olympic sports in the United States.
The answers, searingly critical of the USOC, came this week in the report issued by Ropes & Gray, the Boston-based international law firm whom the USOC Board of Directors hired to conduct an independent investigation.
The report’s evidence that USA Gymnastics and its former chief executive, Steve Penny, acted unconscionably already had been well documented. Its evidence about the USOC’s utter failure to act was new – and even more awful than many suspected.
The answers in the Ropes & Gray report condemned the actions and inactions of former USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun and former USOC chief of sport performance Alan Ashley so thoroughly it is clear that close association with them has tainted, fairly or unfairly, the standing of all but one of those on the 10-person USOC paid executive team and of the entire USOC volunteer board except Olympic champion Kikkan Randall, who joined the board in February.
That includes Susanne Lyons, a board member since 2010 who is to become board chair Jan. 1. Lyons, who spent three months as acting USOC CEO after Blackmun’s resignation Feb. 28, no longer can hold that position with any credibility, no matter that she played a significant role in assuring that the Ropes & Gray report would seek and tell an unvarnished truth.
Lyons should immediately resign, and the other board members but Randall should also resign, with a staggered timetable to allow for an orderly transition.
That also means Anita DeFrantz, a longtime USOC board member who, like Randall, holds that position by virtue of being an IOC member, should step away. Randall, free of past association, should stay if she wants to.
New CEO Sarah Hirshland is the only remaining member of the executive team – Ashley was fired Monday – not hired on a permanent basis during Blackmun’s eight-year tenure as CEO. Whether any of those executive team members who came on board under Blackmun’s watch retain their jobs should be up to Hirshland and a new board.
The official reason for Blackmun’s resignation was his health, which certainly was a contributing factor, given that he has been battling prostate cancer. Yet there is no doubt he was forced to leave as the magnitude of the scandal grew, and the USOC lost moral standing by insisting it lacked the authority to intervene in the affairs of individual federations like USA Gymnastics.
The investigation’s initial mandate was to find out who at the USOC and USA Gymnastics knew about the abuse of athletes by Nassar, a USA Gymnastics team doctor at four Olympics; when they knew about it; and what they did with that information. The mandate later expanded to explore the circumstances that “contributed to and allowed” Nassar’s abuse to continue for so long.
The 233-page report noted the inaction of Blackmun and Ashley, from the time the report said they first learned of the Nassar situation in late July 2015 phone conversations with Penny to the time, 14 months later, that the Indianapolis Star first reported it. During those months, Nassar had the opportunity to abuse many more young women and girls.
The subsequent attempts by Blackmun and Ashley to cover it up were heinous. Blackmun’s justification for deleting a critical email, that he feared it would come into the hands of Russian hackers, could simply be dismissed as laughably pathetic were it not for the further suffering that his improper reaction to that email may have caused.
This is what Blackmun wrote in a Dec. 21, 2017 letter to leading administrators and others, according to the Associated Press, which had seen the letter:
"During my tenure as CEO, which began in 2010, we have never been, and will not be, party to any effort to conceal or keep confidential allegations or instances of sexual abuse."
The board had heard enough by the middle of 2017, from news reports and lawsuit filings, to have taken forceful action, started an investigation and asked Blackmun to step aside pending its results. But that was a board chaired by Larry Probst, who lauded Blackmun during a press conference at the 2018 Olympics a week after the board had asked Ropes & Gray to investigate, which was two weeks after Nassar was sentenced and three weeks before Blackmun resigned.
“Scott has served the USOC with distinction since 2010,” Probst said. “We believe he did the right thing at the right time. The board fully sports Scott.”
Probst, who announced in September he was resigning as USOC board chair effective the end of 2018, told the investigators he knew nothing about the allegations against Nassar until the Indianapolis Star’s first story.
In a media teleconference following Friday’s board meeting, Lyons did not mention Blackmun by name but indicated his failure to tell the board what he knew affected the board’s ability to act more promptly.
“Given that we did not learn this information, (that) there was a failure of transparency where the information did not move across the pipeline, we asked (Ropes & Gray representatives) what we could have done differently,” Lyons said. “Ropes said they felt the whole organization was really disabled, in a sense, from being able to take the appropriate action because that information did not flow.”
To my question about why the board had not sought further information in 2017 based on what had been reported and on the lawsuits filed against the USOC and then acted on such information, Probst replied the USOC board was involved in pressuring Penny to resign, in pressuring the entire USAG board to resign and in pressuring the gymnastics federation to end its relationship with the Karolyi Ranch, the official training site where Nassar’s abuse had frequently occurred.
None of those three things happened before March 2017, when Penny resigned. The other two did not occur until after Nassar’s trial.
Colorado Springs Gazette reporter Tom Roeder raised the issue of board resignations, based on his conversation with Colorado Rep. Diana DeGette, who Roeder said told him Congress may want to seek an entirely new USOC board. DeGette is to head the subcommittee investigating sexual abuse within organized sports.
“We will await direction from Congress at the culmination of their inquiry,” Hirshland said.
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to accuse Nassar publicly of sexual assault (in the Indianapolis Star story that directly led to Nassar’s conviction), told a press conference a day after the release of the Ropes & Gray report there needs to be further investigation, and she called upon Congress to do it.
“What we have seen in this report is the tip of the iceberg. It is betrayal upon betrayal,” Denhollander said. “Not only did they betray us when we needed them desperately to protect us, but when Jamie (Dantzscher) and I came forward, they betrayed us again, because they knew what Larry was.
“They had evidence of his sexual abuse. It is time for Congress to act. We cannot trust that what is in this report is the full scope of the investigation.”
Prior to the Nassar scandal, nearly every story written about Blackmun, by me or anyone else in the U.S. media, would justifiably credit him for having stabilized USOC management operations after two decades of a revolving-door executive, when one top official after another left under a variety of clouds. Now the question is whether trying to keep that stability was among the reasons that led him to avoid any action in the Nassar case that might have roiled the waters again.
(Full disclosure: after leaving the Chicago Tribune in 2015, I did freelance writing for the USOC in 2016 and in 2018.)
By 2017, from the release of court filings in a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics, it was known that Blackmun, then USOC general counsel, had been among the USOC leaders alerted to the dangers of sexual abuse of young athletes in a 1999 email from Bob Colarossi, then USA Gymnastics’ chief executive. And, as USA Today reported in March 2017, the USOC had paid no heed to USA Swimming’s having brought the risk of child sexual abuse in its sport to the USOC’s attention in 2004.
Blackmun, who was not working for the USOC in 2004, told the Ropes & Gray investigators that “when I started in 2010 if someone said what are the top fifteen priorities for the USOC, I wouldn’t have had sex abuse on the list.”
From the 1988 Winter Olympics, when Team USA’s Olympic results were (and still are) the poorest in history, the USOC’s ever-more-plainly-stated priority has been winning medals. It is easy to call that a major factor in both USOC and USA Gymnastics having turned a blind eye when it began to receive reports of Nassar’s behavior in “treating” women and girls with sexually abusive methods. Why, that logic goes, would anyone want to rock a boat that was hauling back lode after lode of gold?
Yet it is almost incomprehensible that the people involved – and this includes many leaders at Michigan State University, where Nassar ministered to athletes for years – would have been so callous and so utterly lacking in a moral compass to have all but condoned, for any reason, abuse that reached a scale that also is incomprehensible.
However, as the Ropes & Gray report concludes, the emphasis placed on winning medals gave athletes the perception that nothing else mattered to the USOC and USA Gymnastics.
“Against this backdrop, many athletes have expressed frustration, dismay and concern that USAG and the USOC are focused almost exclusively on winning, to the detriment of other values in sport, and that their individual welfare is subordinate to the organizations’ medal-count mission,” the report said.
Such feelings are jarring because they run counter to all the lofty ideals promulgated by the IOC and the USOC, including modern Olympic founder Baron de Coubertin’s famous utterance, "The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle.”
The reality, of course, is different. Poor Team USA results over the first week of the 2018 Winter Olympics led to many premature “What’s Wrong?” stories in the U.S. media, which, like the U.S. public, pays rapt attention to medal counts. As the Ropes & Gray report notes, the USOC has only encouraged such reactions with its own mission statements.
So how to give U.S. athletes any confidence their concerns will be addressed honestly and expeditiously by the USOC in the future?
Some are calling for Congress to revoke the USOC’s charter (via the 1978 Amateur Sports Act) and to start over with a new organization. First of all, that is an impractical solution that would leave athletes without the bureaucratic and financial structure needed to help them get to the Olympics, with the next Summer Games barely 19 months away. Second, with such a gridlocked Congress, it might be asking too much to expect a timely resolution on this issue.
Congress can have a role in this, essentially in continuing discussion of the issues. But the USOC sponsors should be applying the same pressure for drastic reform and restructuring to the USOC that USA Gymnastics’ sponsors did by fleeing the gymnastics federation en masse last year.
Pressure from IOC global sponsors based in the United States pushed the IOC to reforms in the wake of the bid city votes-for-bribes scandal that emerged in 1999. Yes, some of the reforms were window dressing, but at least the IOC briefly had to stop thumbing its nose at the world when outsiders began to wonder how corruption had become an accepted part of IOC business.
What the sponsors should do, as the USOC did with USA Gymnastics, is ask for the resignations of the USOC board, whose members seemingly adopted a see-no, speak-no, hear-no stance on the abuse issues; demand that the board’s future meetings be open to public scrutiny; and demand that the USOC board take full oversight responsibility for the actions of any of its member federations.
The first step a new board should take is to remove the position of athlete ombudsman from the USOC executive team and establish it as a totally independent entity. And there should be at least one degree of separation in payment between the USOC and the person in the ombudsman’s job. Have one of the sponsors, on a rotating basis, give part of its sponsorship money directly to the USOC Athletes Advisory Council and let the council pay the ombudsman.
Is that payment idea also window dressing? Maybe, but inside those windows is a pretty ugly scene right now, so why not try anything that might make it become better, not just look better? And gymnastics is not the only sport involved – there have also been sexual abuse cases revealed recently in swimming and taekwondo.
If you are USOC sponsors like Hershey or Nabisco or Liberty Mutual or United, what do you gain by sitting silently on the sidelines? Why continue to sponsor an organization that your consumers may now recognize only for having abdicated its responsibility to the health and safety of children?