PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, opened a news conference here Sunday by reading a prepared statement that declared the IOC’s policy-making executive board was “deeply shocked and saddened” by the “abuse scandal” rocking USA Gymnastics and Michigan State.
The board also, Bach said, expressed its “moral support for the victims and applauded the courage of the victims who gave testimony.”
The IOC, Bach further said, “took note of the ongoing independent investigation,” the U.S. Olympic Committee announcing Friday it had selected New York law firm Ropes & Gray LLP to conduct the inquiry, and “hopes that this will also give clarity to the responsibilities of the different parties.”
USA Gymnastics clearly has a lot to answer for. Michigan State as well.
The FBI, too, as the New York Times made plain in a blockbuster account published over the weekend, the agency taking a year to pursue the case — the paper identifying at least 40 girls and young women who say Larry Nassar molested them between July 2015, when the matter was first reported to the FBI, and September 2016, when the Indianapolis Star published its first accounts.
For all that, an issue for many, including on Capitol Hill: what about the USOC?
Everyone, it seems, is looking for someone to blame. It’s entirely unclear, however, that — without more — it should be the USOC.
The outrage the Nassar case has sparked is perhaps unprecedented in U.S. Olympic history. The number of his accusers keeps climbing — at least 265. Last week, Randall Margraves, a father who was seething over sexual abuse suffered by his three daughters, tried to attack Nassar in a Michigan courtroom; Margraves later apologized; the judge said she would not fine or send him to jail under her contempt-of-court powers.
With emotions running so high, it’s perhaps understandable that the USOC has emerged as a focus of keen attention.
When it comes to the Olympic scene in the United States, most people recognize only four letters, and then only every two years: U-S-O-C.
That, though, is not the way it is.
Indeed, the way the Olympic hierarchy works in the United States is little understood.
So it can further come as little surprise that USOC procedures are not widely known — in this context, the way the USOC has developed, implemented and acted upon policy in what has come to be called the “SafeSport” space.
The USOC is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It is chartered by a 1978 act of Congress.
USA Gymnastics is based in Indianapolis. USA Badminton is in Anaheim, California. U.S. Ski & Snowboard is in Park City, Utah. USA Luge is in Lake Placid, New York.
Each of these organizations, in Olympic jargon, is called a “national governing body.” All in, there are 47 NGBs across the United States.
That same 1978 law gives the USOC oversight of those 47.
Essential to understanding the way things work:
The NGBs are not USOC subsidiaries. They are, rather, members.
The USOC does not — repeat, not — run the NGBs. The NGBs are autonomous entities. They can, and do, maintain their own finances, sell (if they can) their own sponsorships and so on.
In 2010, USA Swimming was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal.
For the USOC, that proved a wake-up call.
That year, the USOC convened a working group to study the matter and make recommendations; that group included subject-matter experts, including lawyers, a psychiatrist with expertise related to sexual and physical misconduct topics in sports and a former FBI representative.
By 2012, the USOC had implemented the various working group recommendations, and by December of that year, it began requiring the NGBs to have in place minimum standards for athlete protection.
The USOC — this should be obvious — is not a police force.
Under what theory would anyone expect the USOC to investigate, or itself remedy, incidents of sexual abuse in other entities? Particularly if those entities were in other states? Or involved a minor crossing state lines to compete in one or more events?
More common sense: it’s far-better practice to leave a potentially criminal investigation to law enforcement.
That’s why, among other SafeSport policies, there is this: “All suspicions of child physical or sexual abuse will be reported to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.”
More common sense:
If it’s not the USOC’s job to investigate allegations, and it was decided it's not, then it’s obviously not the USOC’s job to interfere with an active investigation.
In 2013, a second working group recommended the creation of an independent entity, modeled on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency approach to that issue.
The thinking, and here the USOC learned from its own failed experience in the anti-doping arena, when years ago it used to seek to be police and prosecutor; that didn’t work because there were too many real and potential conflicts of interest; athletes, for instance, were afraid to report; administrators were afraid to go after their own people. What did work? Making USADA a stand-apart entity.
In 2014, the USOC board gave the notion of that independent safe sport entity the go-ahead, intending to open it in 2015; the Center for SafeSport, in Denver, opened in March 2017.
A reasonable question is why the opening took so long. Three reasons:
One, not all the NGBs agreed initially to the Center’s authority and jurisdiction; two, securing insurance proved challenging; three, funding the Center proved perhaps even more challenging. Its budget is $25 million over five years, currently significantly underwritten by the USOC with the help of those NGBs.
Last week, Congress approved a bill, introduced as S.534, that would mandate the prompt reporting of abuse in Olympic governing bodies to the authorities. But it took out $1 million a year to the Center for fiscal years 2018 through 2021, money that had been in the Senate version passed in November but stripped in the follow-on version passed, 406-3, in the House; the Senate then gave that version the OK.
That irony is perhaps notable given calls from Congress — which itself has oversight over the USOC — for an investigation into what the USOC knew, and when.
The further irony is that Congress — in particular, the Senate — has been sitting since March 2017 on a key piece of corroborating information that prompted at least two senators to wonder about “serious issues of culpability” at the USOC.
The Wall Street Journal, in a story published Thursday, reported that then-USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny called USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun on July 25, 2015, to say he planned to report to law enforcement “what appeared to amount to sexual assault by a team doctor.”
Blackmun told Penny to “do what he had to do,” the Journal reported, adding that Blackmun “provided no further guidance to USA Gymnastics on the matter in the months to come.”
The insinuation, of course, is that Blackmun should have done something more.
USOC policy, however, dictated that Blackmun do exactly what he did.
July 25 was a Saturday. On July 27, that Monday, Penny reported the matter to the FBI office in Indianapolis, the Journal and the Times have reported.
Back to the Times and the FBI: “The three alleged victims then at the center of the FBI’s inquiry were world-class athletes; two were Olympic gold medalists. Nearly a year passed before agents interviewed two of the young women.”
Again — nearly a year.
If there are “serious issues of culpability” to be explored, perhaps a reckoning of the FBI’s role in this matter would be in order?
Outrage over what Nassar did is understandable. Someone should have stopped him. To suggest it should have been the USOC? The USOC developed and implemented policy. Policy said law enforcement was to be notified. It was. That policy further said the USOC’s role, once law enforcement was notified, was to stand down. So that's what the USOC did.
Should the policy have been different? Going forward, be different? If so, how? That, perhaps, is a matter for the Ropes & Gray inquiry.
The Journal, meantime, asks why officials at the USOC “didn’t reach out to athletes, law enforcement or Dr. Nassar’s other employers in the year before allegations against him became public in September 2016.”
Because the matter was in the hands of the FBI.
Imagine — assuming the FBI had been conducting a full-speed ahead investigation — if the USOC had reached out in the manner the Journal was suggesting. Who believes the FBI would have taken kindly to such interference?
Imagine this hypothetical, again assuming an on-it FBI: the USOC makes such calls, word gets back to Nassar, he opts to try to destroy evidence on his hard drive, reported to contain 37,000 images and videos of child pornography. Now what? Is the USOC on the hook for obstruction of justice?
Last March, meanwhile, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing into allegations of abuse involving USA Gymnastics.
The committee chair, Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, was among those who attended the news conference last week announcing the passage of S.534; that’s notable because it was Grassley who in March formally asked Rick Adams, the USOC’s chief of Paralympic sport and NGB organizational development, when the USOC had been “notified” that USA Gymnastics had reported abuse allegations to the FBI or other law enforcement.
Adams replied that during the summer of 2015, officials of USA Gymnastics indicated that the matter had already been reported to law enforcement — just like the Journal reported.
In this regard, all along the USOC version has been consistent — it was made aware by USA Gymnastics in July 2015, and USA Gymnastics reported the matter the first working day thereafter to the FBI.
In a statement reported in Friday's editions of the Journal, USOC chairman Larry Probst said of Blackmun, “Scott has served the USOC with distinction, and has been a forceful advocate for safe sport. We understand the senators’ concerns and respect their views, but given the ongoing investigation the board believes that it is inappropriate and unfair to judge Scott before board members understand all of the facts.”