Earlier this week, more than two years after the Indianapolis Star reported the first allegations against former USA Gymnastics/Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar, Senator Cory Gardner, a Republican who represents Colorado, introduced the “Strengthening U.S. Olympics Act” to closely scrutinize the USOC—among other things, it will assess the effectiveness of the failed United States Center for Safe Sport—and propose policy changes. It’s better than nothing; it’s not nearly enough.
The news of this proposed legislation comes just over a month after the Ropes & Gray report detailing the institutional failures at USA Gymnastics and the USOC. While both of those institutions came out looking very bad, it was probably worse for the USOC. The report detailed that former CEO Scott Blackmun and then-current high performance director Alan Ashley had been notified about Nassar in 2015 and had deleted emails with his name. Ashley was fired the day the report came out.
Earlier this month, a group of Olympians including diving gold medalist Greg Louganis called for Congress to completely overhaul the USOC. “Because the USOC cannot rehabilitate itself, Team Integrity calls on Congressional action to rewrite the Sports Act,” the group said in a statement.
Members of Gardner’s proposed commission would, according to a draft of the bill, be selected by the Senate and the House and would have to have experience in: sport (amateur or professional); coaching; advocacy work for victims of “bullying, harassment hazing, or sexual assault”; or advocacy work in the field of increasing minority representation in sports.
Note that “marketing” experience was not listed as one of the prerequisites. In the recent past, the Olympic movement has been infiltrated by marketing executives who have come to occupy top posts. Former USA Gymnastics CEO and president Steve Penny was a marketing guy, first working with USA Cycling and Lance Armstrong and then moving over to gymnastics before he was made the head of a national governing body. And new USOC boss Sarah Hirshland had previously worked at Wasserman Media Group, a large sports marketing agency. (She was also previously an executive at U.S. Golf Association.) The absence of marketing professionals from this list is probably a good sign.
The commission would report its findings and its policy suggestions directly to Congress.
One of the key complaints from athletes and their advocates is how little say and power that the athletes actually have in key decision making and resource allocation. Han Xiao, the chair of the Athletes’ Advisory Council at the USOC, brought this up when he testified before a Senate committee this past summer.
“It’s a failing of the entire system, the way it’s set up,” Xiao said during his testimony.
When reached for comment, Xiao sent this statement on behalf of the AAC:
The Athletes’ Advisory Council has consistently noted the need to take a serious look at necessary reforms to our system in order to empower and protect athletes. The commission that Senator Gardner has proposed is a step in the right direction. I would like to thank Senator Gardner for spearheading this effort and for recognizing the need for athlete involvement in his proposed legislation.
Though the USOC is based in his state, Gardner doesn’t appear to have been especially critical of the organization and how it has handled sexual abuse cases in gymnastics and across a range of sports. Back in February, when Scott Blackmun was still in charge of the USOC, Gardner and Michael Bennett, the Democratic senator from Colorado, both said that anyone at the USOC who knew about Nassar’s abuse had to resign. Not exactly fighting words, and certainly not ones containing any sort of structural critique.
In announcing the new legislation, Gardner said:
“In Colorado we’re proud of our Olympic city, Colorado Springs, and all that our Olympic athletes mean to our great state,” Gardner said in a video announcing the bill. “But we know we can do better. We know we can always work harder. And that’s why we’ve introduced legislation today to make sure we’re taking a look at the structure of the (U.S.) Olympic Committee so that its presence in Colorado grows even stronger and we do a better job of looking out for the futures of our Olympic athletes.”
The way Gardner makes it sounds, the USOC is simply a B student trying to get to an A, not a failing student trying to not flunk out of school.
As if on cue, the USOC, an institution that has been repeatedly accused of putting money and medals ahead of athlete well-being, tweeted this today:
This is an organization that has repeatedly dropped the ball on sexual abuse crises in sports going back nearly a decade. (The first big one to hit the USOC was USA Swimming’s, back in 2010.) What’s needed aren’t some modest reforms or some tinkering around the edges: The USOC needs to be entirely overhauled or scrapped in its entirety.