The hallmark of the U.S. Olympic Committee under Scott Blackmun was indifference. What comes after him needs to be the exact opposite: an energetic, open-scope investigation into the catastrophic failures that led to the sexual abuse of so many of America’s greatest athletes, followed by a creative reconstruction of the organization. The liability-dodging that has been the USOC’s standard response has to end, and so does its concierge service.
Two things need to happen next. First, someone should execute a search warrant. Blackmun is leaving, but his text messages and emails need to stay behind, and land in the hands of truly independent investigators. There has yet to be an adequate explanation for the stunning inaction of Blackmun and former USA Gymnastics head Steve Penny after learning that USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was a serial molester. There has been no proper accounting, either, for the USOC’s years-long passivity on hundreds and hundreds of other abuse cases across multiple sports.
Blackmun’s exit was the result of an athlete revolt. Last week he tried to call several gymnasts; they refused to even speak to him or to cooperate in the flimsy so-called investigation he suddenly tried to engineer by hiring a law firm. They are still too angry — angry at the whole lousy system that paid Blackmun and Penny $1 million a year while they had to endure roaches at the so-called “national training center” that was the Karolyi Ranch, where the disgusting Nassar could perpetrate his crimes in their rooms because there wasn’t even a proper medical facility.
“The time for an investigation was two years ago,” says John Manly, the civil attorney for many of Nassar’s victims. “It seems to the athletes that this is just cover because it blew up. No one has any real faith that the USOC is capable of adequately investigating themselves.”
This week, the USOC’s own Athletes’ Advisory Council sent an internal letter demanding answers and remedies. It wants to know why the USOC sat silently on allegations of abuse in so many cases. It wants to know why the USOC’s executive pay scale is so out of whack with other comparable-sized nonprofits. It wants a congressional commission to review the USOC’s entire structure and workings. And the resignation of Blackmun, which seems to have been partly in response to these public pressures and not just his health issues, is not an adequate remedy to any of it.
“The problem is not the dictator. It’s the dictatorship,” says Eli Bremer, an AAC member and pentathlete who competed in the 2008 Olympics.
As The Washington Post’s Will Hobson has reported, more than 290 coaches and officials associated with the USA organizations have been accused of sexual misconduct since 1982, according to review of banned lists and court records. Those accusations span 15 sports. That’s an average of eight alleged sex crimes a year against Olympic athletes. Or one every six weeks.
How could this happen? It happened partly because the USOC created the underlying condition for it. The lawyers and marketers on the USOC made themselves the center of the system instead of the athletes. They fancied themselves the real rainmakers, and so the conditions and concerns of the athletes became peripheral and marginalized, just as they were budgeted comparative pittances.
Shortly before the Winter Olympics began in PyeongChang, a group called “The Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC” sent a 14-page memo to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce detailing specifics. There were the cases when the USOC actually gave funds to sports federations for legal defenses from accusations rather than supporting the athletes — while the alleged victims had to pay for their own counsel. There were the hundred or so coaches permanently banned from USA Swimming for sexually abusing athletes, without an attempt by the USOC to comprehensively address the epidemic. There were the three taekwondo athletes who reported directly to a USOC official that their coach molested them, with no action taken by the USOC. Throughout, Blackmun, a lawyer, seemed more interested in managing the USOC’s civil liability and exposure than in caring for its medal strivers.
“This is not vicarious liability,” says former gold medal swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, now an attorney and leader of the group. “No, no, no. There is direct culpability for this. He has known about this issue and intentionally sat on the sidelines. That will be Scott Blackmun’s legacy.”
Talk to veteran athletes in the Olympic world, and they will tell you that they have long expected something like this. They have watched the USOC administrators become steadily more concerned with licensing and rights fees and their bonuses. They have seen the growing bloat and self-satisfaction in officials. They have watched the USOC’s volunteer board of directors seem more concerned with their perks than with rigorous management, ethics and operations.
They will tell you that the USOC has operated as a completely unregulated monopoly with no real oversight. That what is needed is a full outside audit. “An organization comprised like we are will eventually do horrific things to its own athletes,” Bremer says.
Blackmun’s resignation is just a small start. Unless there is a full Congress-led investigation with the depth and breadth that the victims deserve, there can be no real rehabilitation of the system. And unless the USOC is completely upended, with its priorities exactly reversed to favor athletes over officials, there will be only more indifference and waste and abuse. If we let that happen, we all will be just as culpable.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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