The chronic sex abuse of our gold medalist athletes in multiple sports is the direct result of a structure with zero accountability. Make no mistake, the two are related: The USOC is a nest of self-dealing in which athletes are expected to pick up the tab for official excesses and stay silent for fear of losing funding. “Athletes are starving and hungry, and this is their dream. They’ll be willing to do anything to get there, including take any amount of abuse,” says Ben Barger, a former Olympic sailor who has tried to confront the USOC on its fiscal habits.
Congressional hearings on the sexual abuses are underway, but they need to expand to address the full range of this problem: The USOC is an unconstrained, run-amok body created by Congress in the first place, and Congress has a responsibility to fix it.
Thanks to a lack of any oversight, the USOC turned itself into a glorified first-class travel agency for its execs while ducking its duty of care and, worse, fostering an anti-whistle-blower culture in which anyone who complains or tries to reform is ostracized, unfunded or left off the team. “There is suppression,” Barger says.
That suppression has shown up in my email queue in the form of people who want to talk openly but can’t. There is the former USOC employee who wants to tell me about the “obscene” expense account abuses they allegedly witnessed at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, who shows me copies of receipts for $300 dinners for two with $150 bottles of wine on them but won’t go public “because I have to raise kids in this town.” There is the winter sports athlete who wants to talk about their anger over training debts while watching officials collect $800,000 salaries but requests anonymity because “the retaliation could be career-ending.”
For this atmosphere alone, the entire USOC management should be removed, the organization decapitated. This is supposed to be a nonprofit that relies wholly on private donations. The board of directors headed by Larry Probst had a responsibility to exercise ethical governance and transparent fiscal stewardship. None of it exists. Instead, this alleged nonprofit has 129 staffers who make salaries of six figures or more. What decent board lets a nonprofit operate that way?
The USOC needs to explain to somebody, preferably Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and the rest of the Senate Committee on Commerce, exactly why the USOC needs 129 six-figure executives when meanwhile we’ve only got 800 or so Olympic athletes. There were only 242 members of the USA Winter Olympic team in PyeongChang, and 558 on the Summer Games team in Rio. Self-starting kids don’t ask for much. Many of them had to crowdfund to get there. They bartended, cleaned houses and begged their local police to hold bake sales to help them pay for training and plane tickets.
Let’s examine the USOC’s tax return. The only real public disclosure the USOC must make is on its yearly 990 form, and I asked tax expert Howard Gleckman of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center to take a look at it. It showed revenue of $336 million for 2016 (made up of TV money, royalties and donations). Of that, as far as Gleckman could tell, only about $28 million, or 8 percent, made it to the athletes. Again, what nonprofit operates that way?
“My basic take is, this is a business,” Gleckman says. “This isn’t a charity.”
In 2016, Washington Post reporter Will Hobson asked then-USOC CEO Scott Blackmun why there is such a gap between what the organization claims it gives in “support” to athletes and what athletes actually receive. It turns out the USOC categorizes the salaries of many employees as part of “athlete support.” You heard that right: USOC execs like to “support” athletes by paying themselves six figures.
“They have all this cash income, and they pay hundreds and hundreds of people to spend it,” says Barger, who tried to examine the USOC’s books in 2012 when he was a member of the Athletes Advisory Council. “It’s deceptive marketing. They’re truly giving it to themselves.”
You know how else the USOC execs like to “support” athletes? By flying their husbands and wives first-class. “As you look at where the money goes, it’s pretty obvious a lot went to executive compensation and first-class air travel, not only for the board and the execs but for their spouses,” Gleckman says.
The USOC’s 990 contains this footnote: “The USOC has determined that it is sometimes beneficial for the CEO and Board Members to have their spouses accompany them to particular events, such as the Olympic Games.”
This spendiness has spread all through the USOC and its underling sports federations. US Ski & Snowboard paid CEO Tiger Shaw $512,683 and former CEO Bill Marolt almost $741,696 in 2016. The federation’s 990 shows a couple of other interesting line items. Certain employees are allowed to expense “travel for companions.” And a company owned by Marolt, who is now on the USOC board, was paid another $80,000 for “consulting.” Meanwhile, US Ski actually charges our young B and C team skiers money to race, billing them upward of $20,000 a year each to cover what the organization claims are travel budget shortfalls. “Try actually having to pay a living wage in order to compete,” says the winter sports athlete who reached out to me in an email. One season cost this competitor $40,000. But athletes don’t dare complain; they depend on the discretionary choices of coaches and administrators to enter them in the races that can help them qualify for higher tiers. “If I complained, I’d never get discretion again.”
Asked to respond to criticism that its management overhead is too high, US Ski & Snowboard sent this response from federation chairman Dexter Paine: “US Ski & Snowboard provides a competitive compensation program that is comparable to those offered by other for profit and not-for-profit organizations of similar size and structure.”
This is our pathway for young athletes. No wonder Norway avalanched us in the medal count last month.
It has long been obvious to anyone who cared about the “Olympic Movement” what needs to happen: Someone needs to open the books. Millions of Americans support the Olympic cause and corporate sponsors pledge funds, and all are getting misled by this bloated, out-of-control monster. According to Gleckman, a single 990 filing (with no expense itemization) isn’t enough to ensure oversight; the IRS is notoriously weak in policing nonprofits. “The problem is that there are a lot of questions the government doesn’t ask,” he says. “It’s going to require Congress to basically shake the tree and make these guys disclose what they have not yet disclosed.”
The USOC board is hardly going to self-confess or self-police. Congress created the USOC with the Amateur Sports Act, and Congress can whack it back down to size and mandate regular audits. It’s not hard. “You have this old guard protecting the ‘quo,’ ” Barger says. “What it needs is some common business sense and experienced nonprofit leaders, and oversight on a regular, standard interval.”
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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