Common sense, please, about the USOC

Common-sense test here. If, as a publicity-seeking lawsuit filed in federal court in Denver alleges, the U.S. Olympic Committee had been engaging in “commercial sex trafficking,” and that was even in the slightest bit true, wouldn’t every single one of the USOC’s corporate partners have fled like rats on a sinking ship?

That lawsuit was filed May 4, a Friday.  

I have deliberately waited a full business week — five full days, Monday through Friday — to see whether even one corporate entity, super-sensitive to such matters in this #MeToo era, would take action. The USOC’s sponsors include some known for wholesome family-style branding campaigns; there’s also Nike, itself wrapped up in harassment allegations.

How many have said as much as boo?

None.

What USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar did was horrific. Obviously, every precaution should be taken to try to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. 

If serious misconduct was committed at USA Taekwondo, that, too, deserves to be investigated and, if appropriate, litigated and sanctioned. 

Big picture, however, the USOC and the American people are not being put to a binary choice — win Olympic medals or make sure athletes are being kept safe from sexual abuse or harassment. There is ample systemic room for both.

What is not helpful— to touch on a point also made here time and again — is ramping up the rhetoric in an already-charged atmosphere, particularly one in our hot-take culture predisposed to recrimination and blame. 

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a superb column entitled “… Advice for Living” published in 2016: “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival // Getty Images

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival // Getty Images

In that spirit, what is also not helpful is mixing up the essential point — that the USOC is responsible for stuff it’s not responsible for.

Here, from paragraph 5 of the lawsuit, is Example A of what’s wrong: 

“Because of the USOC’s misdeeds, Congress enacted the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 (‘The 2017 Sports Abuse Act’) in direct response to ‘allegations of sexual abuse made against personnel involved with USA Gymmnastics, USA Swimming and USA Taekwondo and [following] hearings [in 2017] before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee on athlete safety issues.’ “

You can’t have it both ways. The first clause is lawyerly argument. The facts rest in what the rest of the paragraph says: Congress acted in direct response to allegations of abuse made against those three national governing bodies, not the USOC

This is what far too many people have mixed up all along. The USOC and the NGBs are affiliated entities. The USOC does not run them. The USOC is not, contrary to the belief some apparently would hold, a Vader-like Olympic overlord directing an imperial army of 47 NGBs. 

It’s just not. Repeat: it is not.  It is thus fundamentally unfair to throw at the USOC the burden of a loaded term like “commercial sex trafficking” made in a court of law, knowing full well that publishing this phrase in a court document immunizes the term from legal recourse when it is repeated journalistically.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers who filed this case knew full well that there are two audiences for any lawsuit: one, the judge (and, if it gets that far, the jury) hearing the case and, two, the court of public opinion.

This is why on the very first page of the recitation of their allegations there’s a citation to a newspaper story, and why there are references throughout the complaint to more than a dozen news stories.

It’s also why Patrick Sandusky, the USOC spokesman, took the unusual step of declaring — after a couple days of consideration —  that “counsel’s fantastical claims seem calculated to provoke and offend rather than to genuinely seek relief from the judicial system.”

Of course, a lawsuit like this is “news,” but this is where journalistic norms really bear some scrutiny. 

Journalism basic: an allegation in a lawsuit does not equate to a fact. 

Also, there's something seriously amiss when it's considered journalistically OK to run salacious allegation after allegation; to ask the USOC (or USA Taekwodo) for a statement; and then to offer their remarks, if any, as "balance." That's not balance. It may satisfy some elemental journalistic notion of best-we-can-do under daily deadline but that is not balanced, and it totally skews the narrative going forward. How does that serve any fundamental notion of fairness to both sides in the lawsuit? More, how does that serve readers?

To prove the point, underscoring how little some entities understand about both the Olympic structure and, apparently, the law, some outlets just bit — hook, line and sinker. The headline to Outside magazine website’s account asked, “Is the USOC running a sex trafficking ring?” The story wrapped up with this line: “The next step is a response by plaintiffs.”

Basics here:

Plaintiffs file a lawsuit. Then the defendants reply.

I'm pretty sure I understand the basics, and maybe more. My California law license has been inactive for years but I passed the Bar Exam, and on the first try. I covered courts (among other matters) for the LA Times for almost 10 years. I have been around lawyers, judges, the law and courthouses pretty much my entire life; my father, wife, brother, sister-in-law and lots of my friends were or are judges or lawyers.

Beyond all that, I’ve had the experience of fulfilling my civic duty on a jury trial, as the foreman in a civil case in a California courthouse. We not only found for the plaintiff, we awarded a significant sum in punitive damages. 

So here’s my opinion of this case filed in Denver:

Maybe it makes it past summary judgment, when a judge decides whether it has any legal merit. Maybe. But the odds of it getting to a jury trial or, beyond that, to any sort of favorable verdict or of such a verdict being upheld on appeal — they’re about as good as Ruth Bader Ginsburg making a surprise on-stage appearance at a Trump rally.

What, then, was the point?

Almost all civil lawsuits are either dismissed or settle before trial. The courthouses of America would implode if every lawsuit went to a jury. 

So the point of this filing was — what?

For one, leverage. Court of public opinion.

For two, timing. Congress is due to hold a hearing in a couple weeks. From a plaintiff’s perspective, it makes eminent sense — court of public opinion, again — to have filed beforehand. 

It makes even more sense if you’re one of the lawyers on the case, Jon Little of Indianapolis, who is on record as being one of the supporters of a law that Congress that passed earlier this year, and the president signed, amid the Nassar disclosures.

Of course, the USOC is also on record as being a supporter of that very same law. It’s No. 94 on the list of supporting individuals and organizations; Little is No. 96.

Right. The USOC was on the same side as Mr. Little in trying to get that law passed. 

It would be super-helpful if more people would understand that the USOC really is trying to do the right thing.

For that matter, there’s a lot in that lawsuit that bears close reading, indeed.. Let’s see who gets to say what when it is resolved.

In the meantime, common sense, everyone. And let's take advantage of the wisdom of the Notorious RBG: lots less anger and way more goodwill toward and with each other as the work goes forward toward being the best we can be — that means both keeping our young people safe to chase their dreams and, as often as possible, making those dreams come true with Olympic medals.

It's not an either-or.