What do we need with another blue-ribbon commission, the world wonders? The answer is that congressional overseers still haven’t gotten the full answers they want from the U.S. Olympic Committee, much less results, and so they are doing what they do, ramping up more panels and hearings. Which, unfortunately, are needed, if only to finally answer a single question: How come, in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, just one person at the USOC got fired, instead of the whole pack?
That was the question posed by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina at a news conference Monday to announce new congressional legislation aimed at reforming the USOC. Aquilina, who presided over Nassar’s trial and heard the testimony of hundreds of victims, expected “accountability, transparency and meaningful change” in the USOC after the case was over. Especially given the powerful public testimony of athletes such as gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman about the stunning enabling of Nassar by Olympic officials. Instead, Aquilina has seen just more of the same old inaction.
“As a judge, I can say that you cannot rely on us — on the legal system — because by the time you see us and meet us, there is a problem,” Aquilina said.
Aquilina spoke in Denver at the invitation of Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chair of the U.S. House subcommittee investigating the Olympic sexual abuse cases, who put forward a House version of the legislation introduced earlier this year in the Senate by Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).
The lawmakers want an independent, bipartisan, 16-member board to investigate and make recommendations for reshaping the USOC, armed with subpoena power to look into everything from finances to board governance. The bill is needed, and it should pass.
“We had hearings, and, frankly, even though we have met with USOC leadership, still we haven’t had a resolution,” DeGette said.
Translate that from stentorian legislator-speak, and what it means is, “We’re not happy with their cooperation.”
Maybe the most important part of the proposed legislation would be the makeup of the commission: DeGette and Gardner want it stocked with a minimum of eight Olympic athletes. Under the bill, the top Democratic and Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate would also each appoint four members.
No masters of the universe, or corporate honchos, or “branding” experts, flourishing the crests on their blazers and their VIP tickets while they pick the shrimp from the ice sculpture at the IOC buffet. There have been far too many of those within the USOC’s grossly overpaid and overperked ranks.
It’s time for fresh eyes.
The 1978 Amateur Sports Act — the law that established the USOC charter and gave it nonprofit tax status — is badly outdated. It rests on the old code of amateurism, in which the athlete was powerless and treated like a child by patriarchal benefactors wearing boating shoes. “Congress hasn’t relooked or reexamined this since,” Gardner said.
Intermittent attempts to update or improve the USOC have generally been geared toward upping medal counts. Over the years, Congress was so essentially lax in its oversight that it allowed the USOC to grow into a bloated monopoly under the guise of “nonprofit,” in which athletes scraped for funding while desk officers such as disgraced USOC chief Scott Blackmun made million-dollar salaries. “We failed” is how DeGette put it simply.
What’s needed is a comprehensive review that will result in an entire redistribution of power, and of funding, in favor of the athlete. “Most people don’t understand how the money flows, and that works to the benefit of the administrative class,” said gold medal swimmer-turned-attorney Nancy Hogshead-Makar. “We need a new look and a fresh look at how we’re going to organize the Olympic movement, and we need to make sure our Olympic committee matches where the athletes are.”
Nassar could only have flourished in a system in which athletes were afraid to complain or speak up for fear of displeasing the administrators who held the purse strings. As former gold medal swimmer B.J. Bedford described it, athletes have understood that if they complained, “This can only end badly for me, so I’m not going to say anything.”
The commission would finally bring “the voices who have been ignored to the table,” Aquilina said. “Athletes cannot thrive in a broken system that values money and medals over the safety of athletes.”
You’d think another commission or report wouldn’t be needed after so many congressional hearings in 2018. But to date, the USOC’s organization in charge of fielding abuse complaints, SafeSport, remains uncertainly funded and empowered. Nobody has heard from Blackmun under oath, and the old structure clearly was flawed. Olympic administrators failed to protect a generation of athletes from sexual abusers in a multitude of sports, despite earning salaries larger than some victims will get in settlements.
The overhaul will have to come from without. It certainly hasn’t come from within.