I don’t envy my friend Sarah Hirshland’s task as the new CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Restoring credibility to the embattled organization will take great diplomacy and tireless relationship building with two vastly different constituencies: athletes and politicians. Sarah is well-known to SBJ and its readers from her time at the U.S. Golf Association and Wasserman. She made our Forty Under 40 list in 2008 and has played an active role at our conferences. I believe she is highly capable and well-suited for the task. Her role will be far different from the one Scott Blackmun inherited in 2010, when he and Chair Larry Probst needed to establish stronger relationships in the global Olympic community, re-engage corporate America and create trust with the turf-protecting national governing bodies. They succeeded, and while Blackmun’s tenure ended in public controversy, his accomplishments and the stability he brought to the organization should never be overlooked. Many remain huge supporters of him and his work.
The USOC faces a crisis of confidence from the athletes the organization is charged to serve, the public and Congress. Fixing that without unraveling the improvements of the past eight years will test Sarah’s skills. Look at the results of our CivicScience survey taken last month on Page 25 as part of Ben Fischer’s extensive feature — 42 percent have either a somewhat or very negative opinion of the USOC, while only 11 percent feel positive or somewhat positive toward it. These numbers would doom any candidate running for office, but they shouldn’t be surprising considering the disturbing headlines of the past year. Perhaps the good news is that 47 percent are neutral, there to be convinced that the USOC can take the proper steps to serve its mission.
Any reform must start with regaining the respect of the athletes, the backbone of the movement yet those most affected by the breakdown in governance. Athlete voices are louder than ever, rightfully demanding change, and athletes must be first and foremost on the agenda, not money or medals. Congress can wait — they will play to the cameras during midterm elections, and Sarah would need to navigate a post-November political climate. Let’s see if Congress really has the appetite to act, but if it wants to rewrite the Amateur Sports Act, do it with the USOC, NGBs and athletes — not in a vacuum. Remember, Congress is not immune to the current problems: It provided the current organizational structure, yet doesn’t financially support the USOC effort, leaving the USOC on its own to fundraise, which led to bonuses based on money raised and medals won, which of course took the focus off the athletes.
If I were writing to Sarah, here are a few of her skills I’d suggest she focus on and use:
■ Diplomacy — she must be able to navigate the acrimonious relations and conflicting interests of the various governing bodies, their members, athletes, agents and legislators. She will need transparency in dealing with constituents and media. She’s well-suited for that.
■ Legal skills for time in court, before Congress or on compliance. She will need a thick skin, able to take the arrows from the grandstanders in Washington and each sport’s vocal advocates who want more change.
■ Effective sales skills to restore confidence in the corporate sector, which will have a big role in the effort to restore credibility. She will need to be deliberate, yet decisive; listen respectfully to the various voices but be ready and willing to make the hard decision. And she must mix swift urgency with patience in letting the difficult decisions play out.
I’m rooting for Sarah to be that effective leader and return the USOC to be a positive force for sports. There is precedent. Many of us remember the Salt Lake City bid scandal in 2002, which exposed the unethical practice of bribing IOC members. The American public understood the USOC was an administrative organization of bureaucrats that failed, but the true Olympic Movement was not affected. Let’s hope that holds true after the current crises.
The position I’m watching most closely on the team side is who becomes president of the Carolina Panthers. I’m told new owner David Tepper has narrowed his list and is looking for specific qualifications: A former team leader who can keep up with him on the business numbers; has experience in leading an organization and in sales and revenue generation; and has either built or renovated a facility. Few executives can check all those boxes, but there’s great interest in the opportunity as it’s a franchise with considerable growth potential.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.