A call to assess the USOC's 'structural challenges'

Reading the more than 200 pages of the Ropes & Gray report into the “constellation of factors” underlying Larry Nassar’s abuse of gymnasts, it’s evident there is abundant blame to go around beyond the obvious — Nassar was a monster.

For the U.S. Olympic Committee, this crisis marks a signal moment. 

Whether or not one might dispute some of the considerable blame leveled the USOC’s way in the report, especially given still-unexplained FBI inaction, it’s crystal-clear the time is now for the USOC to undertake a far-reaching review of its mandate and governance, in particular its relationship with and the oversight it exercises — or should, or doesn’t — over the 50 national governing bodies. 

Hence this call:

The USOC should empower a special blue-ribbon commission aimed at assessing — to use the language from Ropes & Gray, pages 162 and 163 — the USOC’s “structural challenges” in “reorienting from a service- to an oversight-centered approach and moving the NGBs away from an ingrained interpretation of the [1978 Amateur Sports Act] that was based on protecting athletes’ right to compete.”

The very first, and most pressing, matter is elemental: how much oversight?

This panel needs to be led by someone who understands the USOC and its history inside and out; who has relationships in Colorado Springs, Washington and Lausanne; and who has the political and other skills necessary to effect what are surely going to be hard changes.

This space recommends Bill Hybl. 

Hybl has twice served as USOC president; he serves as a member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation’s board of directors; he was an IOC member in the early 2000s; he has a distinguished record of public service in Colorado and with the U.S. Commission on Public Diplomacy; he is chairman and chief executive of the Colorado Springs-based El Pomar Foundation. 

Bill Hybl // Getty Images

Bill Hybl // Getty Images

Over the 40 years since the 1978 Act, the USOC has — on a recurring basis — faced significant challenge. 

Way better to reform itself than to have change thrust upon it. 

The scope and nature of the challenges the USOC over the decades has confronted — and with it, the Olympic movement — may be very different than now. Nonetheless:

In 1988, after the Calgary Winter Games, a panel headed by George Steinbrenner said the USOC had to re-do the way it went about trying to win medals. 

In 1998, the underlying law was updated to, among other things, include the Paralympics; it was renamed (shorthand here) the Ted Stevens Act.

In 1999, amid the corruption scandal sparked by Salt Lake City’s winning bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics, a five-member USOC-appointed panel led by former U.S. Senate majority leader George Mitchell recommended significant reforms to the IOC — including a ban on trips to cities bidding for the Games, a measure the IOC would adopt and that remains in effect. 

In 2003, a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times about the then-chief executive, Lloyd Ward, sparked congressional hearings and calls for governance reform. Not just one but two panels would lead the USOC to cut its board of directors from more than 120 to 11. 

In March 2010, another panel, this one chaired by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, again tackled governance. It prompted the USOC “fine tune” the board structure, to 15.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2014 // Getty Images

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in 2014 // Getty Images

Eight-plus years later, the Tagliabue report stands out, and for many reasons. 

In considering the USOC’s “core mission,” it cited with approval this paragraph from 2003:

“The USOC should partner with and provide select resources and services to the National Governing Bodies and Paralympic Sports Organizations to obtain for the United States the most competent representation in each event of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The USOC must enhance and protect the Olympic brand and the overall perception of the Olympic movement in the United States to promote the long-term financial success of the USOC and generate revenues to support the Olympic and Paralympic movements. The USOC should also interface with the International Olympic Committee and other international organizations to focus on developing long-term relationships with the USOC, selecting and supporting United States bid cities, and ensuring that the interests of the USOC are fairly represented.”

Note: not a word about any of the matters that took up months of due diligence and produced a report of more than 200 pages from Ropes & Gray.

Pertinent: the Tagliabue report focuses at some length on the USOC”s mission statement, saying “clarity of mission and purpose is a critical element for the successful operation of any organization.”

That mission statement, adopted in 2003, still the same in 2018: 

“To support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence while demonstrating the values of the Olympic movement, thereby inspiring all Americans.”

Is that still the mission? Or does that statement need to be revised?

One more thing, also from 2010, because these words perhaps ring even more loud and clear today:

“Systemic change … cannot be accomplished without patience, the aligning of interests across organizations and consensus building. It will take time … the support of the USOC’s constituencies and partners will be critical to the success of these transformative efforts.”