The current US Olympic Committee effort to take over the operations of the scandal-ridden national sports-governing body, USA Gymnastics, is ludicrous. Even leaving aside the horrific scandal revolving around former USA Gymnastics team doctor/convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, the USOC has also been involved in several other sordid scandals since the early 1990s. It is therefore time to consider whether the US government—like most other governments—should take over management of national Olympic efforts. Although government is not scandal-free, it is generally more transparent and has more checks and balances than a private organization like the USOC, which, unlike the government, has to be financially dependent on corporate sponsorships.
The USOC takeover of USA Gymnastics was initiated in early November by Sarah Hirshland, the former chief commercial officer of the US Golf Association, who became the CEO of the USOC this past August. Her November 5 open letter to the gymnastics community was woefully short on specifics and moral authority: “Today is only the beginning of an important process for gymnastics in the United States. The path is not crystal clear, but our motives are. So, we move forward, committed to ensuring the type of organization each gymnast and the coaches, trainers and club owners who support them, deserves [sic].” Indeed, lawyers representing gymnasts suing the USOC and USA Gymnastics immediately denounced Hirshland’s open letter: “Today’s announcement by USOC seeks only to deflect from their total failure over decades to protect the gymnasts in their care.”
Clearly, legal hostilities have completely soured the environment in gymnastics. For example, when one of the leaders of the gymnasts on the issue of sexual abuse, Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, tried to approach Hirshland this past summer, Hirshland, probably on advice of counsel, avoided her, saying that “I’ve been instructed I can’t talk to you.”
As noted above, the Nassar scandal is not the only one with which the USOC has had to deal. There have also been allegations of sexual misconduct involving swimming, speedskating, and taekwondo. Prior to those, there was the Salt Lake City Olympics bribery scandal and a scandal involving allegations of conflict of interest that resulted in the resignation of the USOC CEO in 1991. Similar clouded resignations of USOC CEOs resulted from the Salt Lake City problems in 2002 and from the Nassar scandal in 2018.
Part of the problem is that a substantial amount of USOC funding comes from corporate sponsors, who, as happened with USA Gymnastics, head for the exits when there is a scandal. The potential loss of sponsors incentivizes employees of the USOC and national governing bodies like USA Gymnastics to cover up problems rather than to report them. Scott Blackmun, the USOC CEO preceding Sarah Hirshland, resigned amid allegations that he had known of the Nassar scandal a year before it broke but neither did anything about it nor reported it to the authorities. Whether the same is true of USA Gymnastics officials is not yet fully known, at least in part because the former CEO of that organization has asserted his Fifth Amendment rights and has been arrested for hiding documents relating to this situation—not acts usually associated with the head of a sporting organization.
If the USOC were a governmental organization, there would be more transparency, because the USOC would be subject to scrutiny from Congress, Freedom of Information Act requests, and inspectors general. Also, since tax rather than corporate-sponsorship dollars would finance operations, there would be no concerns about losing sponsors, which would greatly lessen the incentive to cover up problems. And there would be checks and balances that do not exist now in what is essentially an organization that has enormous expenses that it must defray by selling multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorships.
To be sure, government control of the US Olympic effort would not be a panacea. It is difficult to imagine, however, that it would be worse than the unaccountable moral cesspool that exists now, leaving star athletes who have been sexual abuse victims, like Olympic gold medalist and world champion gymnast Simone Biles, in a tenuous position concerning their very demanding, time-limited, and coach-dependent line of work. Of the USOC effort to take over USA Gymnastics, Biles said on the November 9 Today show that “all we can do is sit down and watch and hope for the best.” That hope could, should, and would be fulfilled if the United States joined most of the other countries of the world by asserting government control over an endeavor that is not only athletic but also political.