When the U.S. men’s and women’s basketball teams won the gold medals at the Summer Games at both London in 2012 and Rio de Janeiro in 2016, that was the work of USA Basketball, the players, staff, coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Geno Auriemma and chairman Jerry Colangelo. What did the chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Scott Blackmun, do to help USA Basketball win those gold medals? Answer: pretty much zero.
When tennis star Serena Williams won the women’s singles gold medal at the 2012 Games at Wimbledon, what did Scott Blackmun have to do with that?
When the U.S. women’s soccer team won gold before 80,000 fans at famed Wembley Stadium in London, the team’s six-win run to the championship including a come-from-behind semifinal victory over Canada, Carli Lloyd scoring both goals in the 2-1 gold-medal game over Japan — how much did Scott Blackmun have to do with that?
The USOC announced Wednesday that Blackmun, CEO since 2010, is resigning amid the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal that has rocked USA Gymnastics.
Mob justice is no way to do business. Neither is political opportunism. Any and all of you who have been screaming for Blackmun’s head — you just forced the exit of a guy who is honorable, decent, who is 100 percent integrity and who absolutely, unequivocally did not deserve this.
The challenge here is that way too many people in the United States hear “Olympic sport” and think “USOC.”
Problem is, that’s not the way it is.
In 1978, Congress created the way Olympic sport works in the United States.
Now we may — or may not — be at a turning point.
No matter how awful or horrifying — and what Nassar did is awful and horrifying — anger, though understandable, is not a policy solution. Instead, crisis asks for dialogue — hopefully meaningfully and reflective — about lessons learned and what changes, if any, ought to be implemented.
In that spirit:
An entirely reasonable start would be to get key stakeholders together and have a televised debate around the many threads at issue. Even the USOC’s sometimes fiercest critics — the lawyers Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Ed Williams and others — unequivocally should be part of such a panel. Everyone’s ideas could and should be subject to wide public scrutiny.
Perhaps the USOC could convene such a get-together. Or Congress could mandate it.
The fundamental issue, meanwhile, is whether Congress wants to re-do its 1978 law, which in shorthand is called the Stevens Act.
That law gives the USOC the right to the five rings and the word “Olympic.” It also gives those same rights to the roughly 50 different sports in the U.S. Olympic scene. Those sports are, by definition, autonomous. They are their own entities, their own businesses, with sport-specific expertise.
Does Congress really want the USOC managing nearly 50 different sports?
That is, does Congress really, truly want the USOC — which does not have such expertise — making decisions about whether USA Basketball ought to have hired, say, Krzyzewski, or whether Kobe Bryant should have been on the 2012 Olympic team or not, and so on? Seriously? Common sense says that is basketball stuff that should be made by basketball people. Which, in fact, is the way it works.
Just a basic question: if Congress did want the USOC to start making those sorts of decisions, where would the money for that come from?
Congress has always made clear it is the USOC’s problem to figure out how to fund itself. And the NGBs, too.
The budgets of those sports vary wildly (compare tennis to, say, team handball). The interest in those sports in being in the Olympics may vary considerably (compare soccer, especially the men’s version, which is essentially under-23 at the Games, to team handball).
Currently, the USOC’s ultimate leverage with the NGBs is decertification. The problem with decertification, as 40 years of experience has shown, is that it is a nuclear option that tends to hurt athletes, coaches and clubs.
Be careful, Congress. Truly. But:
If the upshot is going to be that “Olympic sport” means “USOC,” and that’s the way it’s going to be, and the NGBs are going to remain some or a significant measure of autonomy, then Congress has to give the USOC authority to impose benchmarks so that it truly has leverage and authority with the NGBs.
Unless the NGBs meet such benchmarks, the USOC would have the legal right to withhold funding.
While it’s at it, Congress also ought to create a USOC enforcement division. The NCAA has such an enforcement division.
Understand: the USOC is not in any way as currently constituted a police department nor prosecutorial agency. If one of the current criticisms amid the Nasser scandal is it should have done something, then going forward the USOC needs to be empowered — and funded — to do that something.
Where should that money come from? The NGBs.
As things stand, right now the NGBs largely get to run their own Olympic Trials — or whatever version (see figure skating) of what they want to call the selection process for the Olympic team. The USOC essentially certifies the athletes who come out of the Trials for the team.
It is entirely predictable that some number of NGBs are not going to like the idea — not at all — of giving up x percentage of their revenue to the USOC so that the USOC can enforce NGB governance.
Here is a leverage point: the USOC either can or should take over the Olympic Trials process.
Again, though: money. Where would that come from? Trials are expensive.
Prediction: this would all prove entirely controversial. It might even prompt a thorough re-think in some NGBs of just how much they genuinely want to be part of the Olympic scene.
Back to money: if (as many people believe could happen in this term) the Supreme Court legalizes sports gambling, that could be a game-changer for the Olympic scene in the United States. Could there be a national lottery to fund the USOC and the NGBs? The United States is essentially the only country in the world in which Olympic sport is not federalized. Would Congress, which — again — has always made plain that it’s up to the USOC and NGBs themselves to pay their own way want to create such a funding mechanism? Would such a mechanism work? After all, there are 50 states. Wouldn’t the states want to create their own lotteries? The USOC is based in Colorado. USA Track & Field, just to pick one, is in Indiana. You see the complexities?
A few weeks ago, Congress passed a law, which President Trump has since signed, that mandates the reporting to the authorities of abuse. At the same time, Congress stripped out of that measure $1 million in annual funding that could have gone to the newly opened U.S. Center for Safe Sport — an agency that for the last several years Scott Blackmun has championed.
The last time the USOC was faced with a significant organizational challenge -- in 2003, when it re-did its governance structure, amid congressional hearings, sparked by a story I wrote for the Los Angeles Times -- the USOC did better by studying the issues, and implementing change, by itself. To be blunt: it's unclear how effective Congress can be. Or wants to be.
Here’s a start for the very next step: everyone take a deep breath. No one deserves mob justice. Indeed, we all deserve better.