It was the confluence of events that drove it home. When Simone Biles hit that triple-double somersault, when fencer Race Imboden took a knee and hammer thrower Gwen Berry raised a fist on those medal podiums, it made something suddenly very clear: There is not a single person in the USOPC who has the moral authority to impose discipline on an athlete.
USOPC spokesman Mark Jones said in a statement, after Imboden knelt at the Pan American Games to protest racism in violation of rules against political gestures, “We respect his rights to express his viewpoints, but we are disappointed that he chose not to honor his commitment.”
Honor his commitment? His commitment? His commitment?
What about the commitment to keep athletes such as Biles safe from child predators — as opposed to enabling pedophiles, giving fat severance payouts to men who obstruct investigations, removing documents and allegedly lying to Congress? All of which Olympic leaders did, according to the findings of a U.S. Senate investigative report. What about the commitment of the USOPC to finance the safe training of young athletes, as opposed to financing their own plates of filet mignon?
The USOPC still reeks. It needs to be reconstituted. We have to start over. There is too much garbage left in the bottom of this pail. Nothing can have a fresh smell under this leadership.
Race Imboden and Gwen Berry broke a rule. Athletes are forbidden to make political demonstrations during Olympic-truce competitions. But the USOPC broke a national trust — and has done nothing to repair it.
While the USOPC considers how to punish these athletes for having real convictions, this seems the perfect time to review some key findings of the congressional report that was issued July 30 by Sens. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) While we’re at it, let’s review the supposed actions the USOPC has taken to reform itself.
Congressional finding: USOPC and USA Gymnastics officials “knowingly concealed abuse” by team doctor Larry Nassar for over a year from 2015 to 2016, leading to at least 40 more victims. What’s more, USOPC chief executive Scott Blackmun appears to have lied to Congress in a written statement and deleted a relevant email.
USOPC action: Last year the board, chaired by Blackmun’s longtime colleague Susanne Lyons, granted Blackmun $2.4 million in severance.
Congressional finding: Former USA Gymnastics chief Steve Penny chose institutional interests over protecting athletes from Nassar, and he emailed an FBI agent telling him, “Our biggest concern is how we contain him from sending shockwaves through the community.” FBI agents subsequently and inexplicably failed to act against Nassar. Penny also allegedly ordered documents relating to Nassar removed from a gymnastics facility.
Action: USA Gymnastics rewarded Penny with $1 million in severance.
The USOPC, after claiming it would decertify the federation in the wake of ongoing scandal, has suspended its efforts. Both bodies have somehow failed to recover the missing documents taken by Penny, who has been indicted on charges of evidence tampering.
Congressional finding: The USOPC fostered an environment in which athletes feared retaliation “if they spoke out against coaches, officials, or other individuals associated with their sport.” The USOPC’s Athlete Ombudsman Office violated confidentiality, and athletes complain they find it untrustworthy and fear they could be punished for coming forward by being stripped of funding or left off teams.
USOPC action: Unclear, if any.
In their reform bill, Moran and Blumenthal would mandate that the ombudsman operate independently and maintain confidentiality. But a group of athlete-advocates, the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, does not think the bill goes far enough in addressing “the fear of retaliation and a lack of power balance between the elite athletes and the USOPC.” Han Xiao, chair of the Athletes’ Advisory Council, has begged Blumenthal and Moran to establish a fully independent inspector general to protect athletes with grievances.
Congressional finding: The USOPC is a “bloated and top heavy” structure that awards “unseemly executive compensation” with “exorbitant salaries” and “excessive perks,” which reinforces athletes’ perceptions that the “leadership is not serving them.” You don’t say.
USOPC action: Sarah Hirshland’s annual salary is $600,000, with a potential for a 50 percent bonus. Blackmun’s pay for 2018, when he worked just two months, amounted to $3 million. A total of 129 execs make six figures, with bonuses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a federally chartered nonprofit, mind you.
“The stark fact is that it has taken baby steps but nowhere near the major reform that needs to be done,” Blumenthal said on the day the congressional report was released.
So, American medalists, take a knee. Drop to your knees on every podium in protest of this rigged, inert, self-serving system. Kneel in solidarity with every young athlete who has had to service an abusive coach and fears what reporting it might do to her career. Kneel to protest having to beg for meal money, only to see the biggest “performance” bonuses go to marketing executives. Kneel in protest over the missing documents and deleted emails, the financial shell games in which people on the sideline collect six-figure pay and classify it as “athlete support” on tax forms.
Kneel until the USOPC is completely obliterated and rebuilt. Kneel in protest of the fact that our greatest athletes are still being used, even today, as mere servicers of power brokers seeking to cash in on their skin. Kneel until the entire audience understands there is a word for the current USOPC reward structure — pimping. Kneel until every USOPC official is shamed into understanding that raking in disproportionate sums skimmed off young people’s bodies, while failing to enact reform that would protect those bodies from crimes, does not make you a mere bystander. It makes you just another abuser.