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Volume 21 No. 33
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NGB boards gather for first time in response to gymnastics fallout

USA Triathlon’s Barry Siff: “If there’s going to be responsibility, we have to have involvement.”
Photo: ITU Media / Delly Carr

The top volunteer board members of 27 national governing bodies met in Denver last month for an unprecedented gathering prompted by the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal.

While the nonprofits’ paid executives regularly discuss administrative and operational matters via the U.S. Olympic Committee’s NGB Council, several board chairs and presidents said they barely know each other. That has to change as the Olympic movement focuses on governance problems in the wake of the Larry Nassar trial and the USOC-directed removal of the entire USA Gymnastics board, said USA Triathlon chair Barry Siff.

“With respect to USA Gymnastics, they dissolved the entire board, so there was board responsibility,” said Siff, who initiated the meeting. “So if there’s going to be responsibility, we have to have involvement, and that level of inclusivity needs to grow within the USOC.” 

The meeting was casual, with an open-ended agenda, and only included slightly more than half the NGBs. But they identified several areas of common interest, including ethics policy writing, abuse prevention procedures, independent board member recruitment and succession planning in cultures often dominated by big personalities.

Some NGBs have been on “autopilot,” USA Volleyball chair Lori Okumura said, administering their sports competently and meeting the USOC’s demands but rarely looking at the big picture. After the Denver meeting, many were convinced they needed to. “After the two days were over, I’d say almost 100 percent of the room thought it wasn’t a bad idea to give things a new look,” she said.

Governing bodies are hard to treat collectively because they vary so much. For instance, USA Team Handball has one employee; US Equestrian has 150. USA Wrestling’s primary revenue source is membership fees; USA Track & Field’s is sponsorship and media.

But they all face a common challenge now: The threat of new compliance and reporting rules from the USOC that will stress their work force and budget.

“While our organizations vary in size and scope, we can always learn from each other in some way,” said USA Hockey President Jim Smith.

Acting USOC CEO Susanne Lyons spoke to the directors. She said the gymnastics scandal reminded the NGB boards of the gravity of their duty, and that they are part of a collective movement.

“This is one of those things where it’s the sum of its parts,” Lyons said. “And if you have weaker links in the chain, it’s a liability and potential risk for all of us.”

Siff said the board chairs will continue to communicate remotely and will plan a meeting in 2019.