On the USOC: more patience, less hyperventilating

A few days before the start of the 2018 Winter Games, the Dalai Lama, who runs a fascinating Twitter account, put this out there:

“Many people,” his holiness said to his 18.2 million followers, “think that patience is a sign of weakness. I think this is a mistake. It is anger that is a sign of weakness, whereas patience is a sign of strength.”

These words of wisdom carry particular resonance now amid what is the rush to judgment in some quarters directed at the U.S. Olympic Committee sparked, of course, by the horrific crimes committed by Larry Nassar.

All institutions can be better. For sure the USOC can be. 

Anger, though, is not helpful. Patience — and a regard for the facts — is, as ever, the sign of real strength. 

No one should be the victim of sexual abuse. Let’s start there.

Jamie Dantzscher, left, last March before a Senate panel // Getty Images

Jamie Dantzscher, left, last March before a Senate panel // Getty Images

At the same time, the past several weeks have seen — to summarize — calls for the USOC to be burned to the ground; if that isn’t going to happen, for it nonetheless to recruit first-rate executive talent at laughably discount rates, or better yet, for free, to a mid-size city in Colorado that is hugely non-diverse; for it to fund all manner of athletes though we don’t live in a socialist society; to be the police; to be a mental health facility; to keep winning a lion’s share of the medals, beating the Russians, Chinese and the Norwegians (oh, and at the Paralympics, too); to influence the White House; and to maintain if not build on relationships overseas, and in particular at the International Olympic Committee.

All the while getting no — zero — government funding, an arrangement virtually unique in the world, because almost everywhere else Olympic sport is an arm of a federal ministry.

To reiterate: everywhere else the central government funds the national Olympic committee.

Not in the United States. 

In 1978, Congress chartered the USOC but said, you figure out how to pay for it all. 

Now, perhaps, the USOC is at an inflection point in its history. Unclear is whether the governance model, refined considerably in 2003, ought to be renewed or reviewed.

Herewith a wide-ranging look:

This is indeed bad but …

Everyone knows the line about how money talks and you-know-what walks.

The silence from major USOC Olympic sponsors is deafening. 

Or, put another way, the solidarity they have shown with the USOC is telling.

We still don’t know what we don’t know

Nassar’s crimes were horrific. But as the allegations leveled this week against his boss at Michigan State would suggest, we still don’t know what the full evidence might show. 

That’s going to take time. A number of investigations are underway.

Best to see what the facts would reveal — to be patient.

The court of public opinion

It’s understandable — step back here — why a handful of plaintiffs' lawyers and other advocates who are trying to drive the court of public opinion are doing what they are doing. 

In Wednesday’s Washington Post, the columnist Sally Jenkins quotes the lawyer John Manly at length, suggesting that prosecutors in various states ought by now to have executed search warrants at USA Gymnastics and the USOC.

Having been around the law and lawyers now for some 30 years, my experience is that prosecutors generally aren’t stupid. Moreover, prosecutors tend to like publicity. It’s not like this matter hasn’t been in the news. 

Never say never about warrants. Anything is possible.

But: if warrants were going to be executed, doesn’t it stand to reason that they might have been executed by now? And that they haven’t signals — what?

Manly does make one excellent point, which this space has made before: the FBI, and its role in this matter, needs to be held to account. 

All the more reason, again, why we — all of us — should wait for the facts.

Rules and policies

If you were asked to write rules and policies aimed at keeping athletes, and in particular minors, safe, you would of course draft language aimed at certain categories of people — for instance, conduct between a coach and an athlete.

One of the reasons the Nassar matter is so unfathomable is that involves the doctor. 

How to craft a policy covering the … doctor? 

Before Congress a year ago

The USOC apologized to Nassar sex abuse victims a year ago at a hearing before Congress. 

Many of the very same outlets now criticizing the USOC were then lashing USA Gymnastics, and only USA Gymnastics.

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee was inquiring even then about allegations of mishandled abuse complaints at USA Gymnastics. Rick Adams, the USOC executive overseeing national governing body development, read from a prepared statement:

“The Olympic community failed the people it was supposed to protect. We do take responsibility, and we apologize to any young athlete who has ever faced abuse."

He went on to cite “a flawed culture, where the brand, the sport and their (competitive) results are given a higher priority than the health and well-being of athletes,” saying, “That is what we need to change.”

The Washington Post report of that hearing cited “the scandal engulfing USA Gymnastics.”  

A New York Times column said the USOC deserved credit for the apology and noted the call from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for the USA Gymnastics board of directors to be overhauled — urging the USOC to “hasten that change,” which it ultimately did, after the testimony earlier this year in Michigan.

An Orange County Register report summarized: “Former Olympians, a U.S. Olympic executive and U.S. senators on Tuesday leveled relentless and pointed criticism at USA Gymnastics for failing to pursue allegations of sexual abuse and creating a culture of fear and intimidation that enabled the abuse by Nassar and others.”

Assuredly the searing testimony this past January in Michigan changed the dynamic. 

But it’s fair to ask whether in looking to cast blame for an unimaginable horror, the one entity in the Olympic space in the United States that most everyone has heard of is the USOC — and if that isn’t the reason why it’s now the most obvious target.

But is that in any way reasonable? Much less fair? Or — right?

The USOC is not the Wizard of Oz

Contrary to widespread public belief, the USOC is the farthest thing from some all-seeing, all-knowing entity that controls every aspect of Olympic sport in the United States from behind some curtain in Colorado Springs. 

The way Congress set it up, each of the roughly four dozen national governing bodies is autonomous, with the USOC having supervisory authority. Forty years of evidence has made clear, and for sound reason, that the USOC has stepped into the day-to-day affairs of those NGBs infrequently. 

The USOC is not set up to know, for instance, how best to coax 30 or more Olympic medals out of the track and field team; or which wax might be optimal for Jesse Diggins’ cross-country skis for the sprint relay; or why Karch Kiraly is the best guy to coach the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team.

The USOC might well fund those federations, but those are all decisions left to USA Track and Field; U.S. Ski & Snowboard; and USA Volleyball.

This, though, is the public disconnect, as expressed by even someone like Michael Phelps, who is very open now about his own years-long struggles with depression and told David Axelrod in a podcast he believed the USOC “in my opinion hasn’t done anything to help us transition after an Olympics, and I think that’s sad. I think it’s unfortunate and it’s something we’re working towards now.”

First, 90 percent of Phelps’ contacts with Olympic bureaucracy in this country, maybe more, were with USA Swimming. When he raced at the Olympic Trials, who oversaw those events? USA Swimming. When he was told to sit out after driving his car through a Maryland tunnel, who handled that? Not the USOC. USA Swimming. 

Moreover, even when the USOC is doing something right, it can’t seem to get credit — in 2016, it launched a program called Pivot, a one-and-half-day workshop in Colorado Springs, with the USOC underwriting travel expenses, specifically intended to “assist retiring athletes in their health and well-being … as they transition out of elite competition.”

Apples and oranges

Activists have sought to use the Nassar scandal as a catalyst to suggest that a wide range of matters are amiss at the USOC.

The evidence for such declarations would seem to be, at best, dubious.

It’s totally OK for the Post’s Jenkins, for example, to have a point of view. That’s what she’s getting paid for. 

But to assert, as she did in a column Tuesday, that only $28 million of the USOC’s $336 million 2016 revenue, or 8 percent, made it to athletes — that’s just facile, if not a mischaracterization to the extreme.

All of which might have been solved with, you know, a phone call or an email — neither of which, according to the USOC, Jenkins made to the USOC before publishing her column. 

Facts, please. And some journalism basics. 

USOC revenue per year varies, and considerably. 

For 2016, an Olympic year, it took in $336 million, per its tax filing. But for 2015, a non-Olympic year, when TV and sponsor incomes are attributed very differently, it took in $141 million. 

Whatever the denominator, to assert that some small fraction goes to the athletes is absurd. More than 80 percent of USOC revenue goes to athlete support — not just in stipends but in medical insurance, tuition assistance, the cost of training centers and, this is key, NGB funding. 

Meanwhile, administrative expenses account for 6 percent of the budget, per the USOC. The remaining 12 percent is used for marketing and fundraising. In turn, that’s what raises hundreds of millions of dollars for the USOC.

Jenkins asserts that the board of directors, led by Electronic Arts chairman Larry Probst, who has been USOC chair now for nine years, “had a responsibility to exert ethical governance and transparent fiscal stewardship.” 

These are among those on the USOC board: Duke athletic director Kevin White, former senior Microsoft executive Robbie Bach, financial services executive James Benson (CEO of Benson Botsford, former CEO of John Hancock life insurance) and Dan Doctoroff, the former Bloomberg CEO who is now chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs. 

Really? These people are financial dummies? Do they seem the sort inclined to a dereliction of fiscal and ethical responsibilities?

Journalistic class warfare

It’s a longstanding point of journalistic tension to assert that the bosses make x and the workers y. Here, per Jenkins and others, it’s USOC staff at x, many Olympic athletes at y.

Here is the deal, people, and this is some John McCain-style straight talk: 

The appropriate comparison for the suits for their compensation packages is not the rank-and-file athlete.

It’s other suits.

For its executive, legal, marketing and other talent, the USOC is competing with the likes of the SEC, Pac-12, ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten as well as the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, MLS and beyond in corporate America.

It’s entirely obvious that the market dictates the salaries for executives.

On top of which, again, the USOC — now in the business of recruiting a new chief executive — has to sell talent on the Springs. You think that’s easy? 

Let’s put real numbers to this. In 2016, the Post reported that from 2004 to 2014 average commissioner pay in the so-called college Power Five conferences soared from about $541,000 to $2.58 million.

By comparison, in 2016, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun’s compensation totaled about $1.075 million.

That’s way less than half of what one of those Power Five college commissioners was making. It’s a wonder Blackmun didn’t bolt for one of those jobs — financially, who could have blamed him?

As for the athletes:

Let’s say I am the best zither player in America. What’s that worth?

It’s not enough to have talent. To get paid in the United States, the equation works like this: talent plus demand. 

The equation is the same for best race walker. Or best badminton player. Or best long-track speed skater.

There is no handout in this country. There is no free lunch. There is none in the Olympic business, and there never is going to be. Sorry. That’s the truth. 

It is an awesome thing to be an Olympic athlete. Or to try to be one. But that does not come with any sort of guarantee of financial success, nor should it. 

That goes for everything, by the way, not just trying to make it in the Olympics.

Like, say, the newspaper business, which — by the way — has largely been decimated over the past 10 or 15 years, in case anyone has noticed. There’s no safety net for us, and why should there be? 

“This is our pathway for young athletes,” Jenkins writes in criticism of the USOC funding model. “No wonder Norway avalanched us in the medal count last month.”

Again: in Norway, like almost everywhere else, Olympic sport is a government enterprise. If Congress wants to take your tax dollars and federalize the Olympics, that would mark a radical shift. 

Do you really want Congress involved in any way, shape or form in Jesse Diggins’ wax choices? Even in second-guessing her or her coaches afterward in the guise of “oversight”?  Seriously?

Until then, we live in a market-based, free enterprise society where Olympic athletes have to figure out how to make it. 

Just like journalists. And truck drivers. And secretaries. And everyone else.

So here’s a really fundamental question: what makes would-be Olympic athletes so special that they deserve — or believe — they deserve to be treated differently than any other American?

They should get a special subsidy? Derived from television, sponsor and other revenues? Uh, why?

Advance one coherent theory to distinguish an Olympic-level hammer thrower practicing in remote isolation in, say, Oregon from a world-class banjo talent honing his or her skills in, say, Tennessee. Who is proposing that the fiddler get paid anything but what he or she can make showcasing and marketing that skill? 

The Olympics can be great. But so are lots of things. That hardly means — and this was Congress’ wisdom 40 years ago — that the Olympic committee is worth your tax dollars, because we have roads and bridges to build, schools to run and a lot of other stuff to do. 

For any and all who suggest that Olympic athletes ought to unionize — good luck. Any and all efforts have failed to gain even the most remote bit of traction, and for the most logical of reasons: there’s hardly any common interest. 

In track and field, a sprinter hardly has anything in common with that hammer thrower. There has never been sufficient logic in the proposition that the sprinter has common interest sufficient with someone in team handball or badminton or curling or whatever.

It may be very unpopular to put into print but this is what I learned growing up in rural Ohio way back in the 1970s, and pretty much this is the way it has played out over all the years since: no one is entitled to anything.

Life isn’t fair that way.

If Jeff Bezos, who runs Amazon and the Washington Post, calls Sally Jenkins to say, hey, I’ve decided, just 'cuz, to share 30 percent of what I’ve got with you and all the reporters at the paper — never mind the editors, most of whom are likely making more than the reporting staff, and for sure never mind the suits in the fancy offices on the business side of the paper, because they are obviously making way more still — that will be the day. Let me know when that happens.

Less hyperventilating all around. Patience, please 

Otherwise, you get ...

When the USOC’s Adams was appearing last March 28 before that Senate panel, as the Times reported, the former gymnast Jamie Dantzscher, to his right, started crying. The paper even printed a picture of her dabbing away tears. At Nassar’s sentencing in January, she took to the lectern to tell him, “You are pure evil.”

Some of the gymnasts have complained about conditions at the Karolyi Ranch, in Texas. Here was Jenkins in the Post, on Sept. 21, 2000, after the U.S. women’s gymnastics team had originally finished fourth in the team competition at the Sydney Games (the Americans would later be moved to third after Chinese gymnast Dong Fangxiao was revealed to have been 14, underage):

“… Our little animatronic dolls placed fourth in the team competition the other night, and they don’t have much chance of medaling in the individual competitions that begin Thursday either, judging by the sound of Jamie Dantzscher’s lollipop kid voice. Her accusatory, finger-pointing trill was a far more graceless performance than our fourth-place finish. ‘Bela takes credit when we do good, and blames everyone else when we do bad — it’s so not fair,’ she pouted. ‘He has too much control of the U.S. team. It’s horrible.’

“Actually, Bela Karolyi is everything the United States needs. You may not like this man with the bristling mustache, the eyes like burning glass, and the fierce booming voice; it may bother you to see him hulking over tiny bodies and urging them to deadly feats, but he is the maker of modern gymnastics, transforming it from a sport of delicacy to power. Without him, the United States doesn’t turn out Mary Lou Rettons, it turns out, well, Jamie Dantzscher …”

And this: "... Perhaps those in the best position to appraise Karolyi's value as a coach are not the Jamie Dantzschers or other, envious U.S. coaches (who put words in the mouths of their gymnasts), but former athletes who have actually won something."




















a year ago

a year ago