In late 2016, retired Team USA table tennis athlete Han Xiao and a few friends active in sports politics ran for seats on the USOC Athletes’ Advisory Council, suspecting their four-year terms would be especially consequential.
Sure enough, not two years later, the U.S. Olympic movement faces a reckoning.
Xiao accurately predicted the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal, then already bubbling up, would eventually open the door to across-the-board reforms. It wasn’t just the scope of the Larry Nassar sex abuse case; it was the knowledge that neither Congress nor the U.S. Olympic Committee had seriously evaluated the Olympics’ governance framework since the early 2000s.
“Usually what happens is there’s some kind of scandal, outrage, then something happens,” Xiao said. “So we’re on this ugly cycle where every 20 years or so, we get some kind of scandal, or some kind of triggering event for big reforms.”
For more than a year now, the pressure has been building on the USOC to fix what went wrong in the gymnastics scandal, not to mention the less widespread but still alarming cases in taekwondo, swimming and other sports. The consensus is that while specific individuals may have been negligent — the law firm Ropes & Gray is investigating that point at the USOC’s expense — the sprawling, poorly defined and inconsistent bureaucracy that administers Olympic sports in the U.S. also hinders appropriate responses.
The ramifications have already hit hard, most notably CEO Scott Blackmun’s resignation in February. Also, the USOC has increased funding to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, demanded a top-to-bottom overhaul at USA Gymnastics, hired a new athlete safety point person at its Colorado Springs headquarters and commissioned the Ropes & Gray investigation.
None of those steps have prevented Congress from hauling USOC and national governing body leaders in for damaging committee testimony, and the threat of another congressional rewrite of the Amateur Sports Act, which grants the USOC a monopoly over Olympic sports, continues to hang over ongoing reform efforts.
“I think thus far both houses have basically been open to the notion that it may not necessarily require opening the act, but they do need to be absolutely assured that we’re making appropriate changes that do give us enough teeth to go out and protect athletes when we need to,” said acting CEO Susanne Lyons.
The USOC last week named Sarah Hirshland as its next CEO. Hirshland, chief commercial officer of the U.S. Golf Association, will assume the position by late August.
Her job will be to right the ship at a complicated moment. Reforms are likely coming that will curtail the independence of sports governing bodies and put more money into administration at a time when revenue is not likely to grow at past rates, and many athletes are vocally demanding a bigger chunk of the pie in direct aid.
But it’s anything but a total turnaround job. Finances are sound, the USOC is closer to the international sports community than it’s been in decades, and Los Angeles is hosting the Olympics in 10 years. Add it all up, and the USOC is facing a critical juncture, one that demands urgent, extraordinary reforms while not upsetting the progress that’s been made.
It’s likely to be unglamorous work. Hirshland will have a honeymoon period, but over the long term, she is likely to endure a tenure in which Congress and internal politics are likely to play dominant roles, rather than the commercial revenue growth and international relations victories that highlighted Blackmun’s tenure.
With a public image problem and numerous lawsuits pending, Hirshland’s most pressing task will be convincing Congress that the USOC can develop the tools and culture to aggressively protect athletes, even when those athletes are under the direct purview of the NGBs, as they are for almost their entire careers except for when they travel to the Olympics or Pan American Games.
The Olympic movement is deeply skeptical of Congress’ motivation and qualifications when it comes to a possible rewrite to the Amateur Sports Act, and it’s hard to make any firm predictions until the midterm elections settle partisan control of the Senate and House for two more years.
“We’re all speculating on what Congress is going to do,” said Tiger Shaw, CEO of U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “So far it’s holding hearings, grandstanding politically, leveraging the situation for the midterm elections. Now, post-November maybe it gets a little clearer and that’s when the staff will roll up their sleeves and ask how the organization should look.”
The Athletes’ Advisory Council wants Congress to rewrite the 1978 ASA, believing it is simply too archaic to accurately govern a movement that’s become professionalized on the field and a multibillion-dollar business since the law was first written, in spite of limited-purpose amendments in 1998 and in February (the latter officially enshrined the Center for SafeSport into law). In short, the athletes want more protection to challenge NGB and USOC decisions without jeopardizing their careers as well as a stronger ombudsman.
Max Cobb, CEO of U.S. Biathlon and chair of the NGB Council, which advocates for the individual sport governing bodies’ interests, said the governing bodies are on board with what’s been proposed so far, but rewriting the legislation would be “concerning.”
“I think that would introduce a level of unpredictability into this reform process that would be difficult,” Cobb said.
Three reasons why Sarah Hirshland makes sense
1. As chief commercial officer of the USGA, she oversees a wide range of the organization’s responsibilities, including its global content and media distribution, marketing and communications, content development, public relations, sponsorships, hospitality, and merchandise and licensing.
2. Prior to joining the USGA in 2011, she was senior vice president of strategic business development for Wasserman Media Group. Firm founder Casey Wasserman is also chair of the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee and called Hirshland “exactly the right person” to lead the USOC.
3. A 2008 Sports Business Journal Forty Under 40 honoree, Hirshland was one of the first employees of OnSport before it was acquired by Wasserman and was a founding employee of Total Sports.
A new commission created by the USOC to evaluate the governance question will begin meeting by August. Chaired by WNBA President Lisa Borders, with membership that includes USOC board member Dan Doctoroff, the committee will be the main vessel for all major reform suggestions. It will be guided in part by an NGB needs assessment, produced in part by USOC sponsor Deloitte, and an athlete survey from this spring.
Nothing is off the table, Lyons said.
“Everything we find in all our other commissions are informative to this committee,” said Lyons, who turned down a board offer to make her the permanent CEO. “As they will make probably the most important decision, which at the end of the day is: Where is the line in the sand? How does the USOC intervene when something appears not to be in the interest of the athletes, and what is our authority to do so, and what are the tools to ensure the right behaviors occur?”
Of course, power and influence is at stake when the organization reconsiders the relationship between the USOC and the governing bodies, but it won’t be long before money becomes an issue, too.
The commission is likely to demand a significant increase in formal reporting from the governing bodies, a process that has already started with an effort to centralize all NGB lists of banned coaches. Also, the USOC will have to develop the capacity to compel NGB cooperation with whatever new rules come about, Lyons said.
“And that costs money, that means more time and energy spent at the NGB level, it means more compliance and audit people at the USOC level, so it will in a sense require some resource allocations,” Lyons said, acknowledging the “lightly staffed” NGBs will “really struggle” with the new rules. The USOC may try to develop more shared-services divisions that could help the mid- and small-sized NGBs with other tasks, to alleviate the workload problems.
Lyons expressed confidence that increased spending on compliance and oversight could be accomplished even though revenue growth opportunities will be limited because Team USA’s commercial rights will soon be merged with Los Angeles ’28. “I think the pie is sufficiently large that we will figure out the right way to spend that money to ensure these activities are successful,” she said.
Preventing abuse is the driving force for the commission, but once the door is opened to NGB-level reform, the commission can count on hearing many different, possibly conflicting, demands.
Longtime NGB leaders like Cobb believe simple steps like standard USOC guidance on abuse prevention and better information sharing can solve many of the problems.
But others say there are more fundamental tensions posed by how NGBs are structured. They’re small central offices expected to oversee clubs and competitions in every corner of the country. They’re expected to be dynamic, commercially competitive enterprises while also pleasing influential volunteers who’ve spent a lifetime in the sport but don’t necessarily know modern media and marketing.
“I think everybody’s focused on safe sport, and that’s critically important to focus on it, but it’s a symptom of a larger issue that needs to be addressed, which is governance, accountability and oversight,” said Max Siegel, CEO of USA Track & Field.
Also, they vary greatly in financial wherewithal and competence at both the executive and board level. “Most athletes would agree that one thing you have to address is: How can we make the NGBs a little more consistent? Some are quite good,” Xiao said. Elana Meyers Taylor, a bobsled pilot who will serve on the reform commission chaired by Borders, said many athletes remain confused about a fundamental aspect of their careers: Who decides who qualifies for financial support, the NGB or the USOC?
“I’m not saying the NGBs have done that completely wrong, or completely right,” Taylor said, “I’m just saying there’s a lot of confusion from the athlete’s standpoint of who’s actually in charge of that.”
Outside of the NGB reform question, the USOC will have to confront a broader question of public opinion. Some victims have blamed the USOC’s laser-guided focus on winning Olympic medals for the lack of prompt action on reports of sex abuse. The priority on the top of the athlete pyramid was always justified by the calculation that medals are the most effective way to monetize niche Olympic sports and build a long-term talent pipeline.
That emphasis must continue even as they find ways to better oversee NGBs, said Dexter Paine, longtime board chairman of U.S. Ski & Snowboard. “Ultimately people want to root for winners,” Paine said.
Therein lies the challenge facing Hirshland and the USOC: Find a way to please the organization’s loudest critics, who believe the Nassar scandal justifies a total teardown and rebuild, while keeping the trust of insiders, who generally believe the USOC is otherwise performing at a high level.
“The research that we’ve done has shown that the Team USA brand has really not been impacted by what’s happening right now,” Lyons said. “The USOC brand, as a corporate brand, is a little less known and understood by the public, and certainly has been negatively impacted for those who do know who we are. And I think that is a challenge for the CEO, to rebuild the trust in the USOC brand.”