USA Gymnastics: Looking for balance
When former USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny was forced out in March 2017 as part of the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal fallout, it was at least a fortuitous time for an abrupt leadership change at a major Olympic sport governing body — still more than three years from the next Games.
Now 18 months, one failed CEO and an entirely new board later, the Indianapolis-based organization finds itself once again in the same place: without a chief executive and still in search of a clear sense of progress out of the post-Nassar turmoil. This time, however, planning for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is ramping up in full force with less than two years to go.
After the Rio Olympics, at least nine other U.S. sports governing bodies installed new chief executives, but most of them have been in place for a year or more. Whoever ultimately is chosen to replace Kerry Perry, who resigned under pressure Sept. 4, will have little time to learn on the job.
U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland, who helped force the latest change by publicly questioning Perry’s leadership three days before she resigned, acknowledged “urgency” in finding a replacement, but said it can’t be rushed.
“We are all in on helping rebuild USA Gymnastics, but at the same time, USA Gymnastics needs to create an autonomous organization that can run itself,” Hirshland said. “That’s not easy to do overnight. So there’s a sense of urgency for sure, but it’s also important to get it right.”
As of Sept. 20, USA Gymnastics had been without any CEO, interim or otherwise, for 16 days. A four-person management committee that includes new board chair Karen Golz and members David Rudd and Kathryn Carson is currently making day-to-day decisions.
Golz was unavailable for an interview, but in a prepared statement provided by a spokeswoman attributed only to USA Gymnastics, the organization said a search for an interim CEO is underway. Board member Brent Lang is chairing the search committee. One person known to be considered is USA Track & Field COO Renee Washington, who coincidentally works one floor beneath USA Gymnastics headquarters.
“Our goal is to identify a leader who will help the organization build on the progress to date and achieve the fundamental cultural changes necessary to move the sport forward,” the statement reads. “While we would like to identify that person as quickly as possible, it is more important to take the time needed to find the best candidate for the job.”
The statement continues: “The business of the organization, including athlete training and preparations for Tokyo, has never stopped.”
On the competition side, the top position of high-performance coordinator was filled by Tom Forster in July. That job previously was held by Martha Karolyi and Valeri Liukin. The governing body notes that the team has continued to be competitive at international events throughout the Nassar scandal and the rebuilding of the front office.
Among the pre-Olympic duties that need attention is deciding on a site for the trials. The location of the 2019 U.S. championships has been finalized but not announced.
If the organization hopes to rebuild its commercial portfolio, which was wiped out by sponsors bailing as the Nassar scandal unfolded, that work will have to start in a few months, said Mike Jaquet, former chief marketer at U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
“In my experience, these deals take 12 to 16 months to get done, from start to finish, and that’s not up against opening ceremony but the entire six- to eight-month lead-up window [which would start in early 2020],” he said.
Sheryl Shade, a veteran gymnastics agent who has represented stars such as Nastia Liukin and Shannon Miller, disagreed, saying sponsors can afford to wait until the likely makeup of the 2020 team becomes more clear next summer.
The organization also has no chief marketer right now. Lee Johnson, former vice president of marketing, left to become CEO of USA Diving and has not been replaced. The highest-ranking permanent staffer is COO Ron Galimore, who has been there 24 years.
Regardless of when a new CEO is named, the timing of USA Gymnastics’ return to normalcy remains uncertain because of the numerous lawsuits currently pending against it from abuse victims. As long as the ultimate financial cost of those lawsuits remains unknown, and the cases are still in the public eye, it will be hard to close deals, Jaquet said.
Hirshland said she took the step of seeking Perry’s ouster because, under her watch, USA Gymnastics kept creating controversies instead of forging a path out of the scandal.
“At that point in time, we saw that the organization was having a hard time creating stability and creating forward progress, and that’s really important for them right now,” Hirshland said. “They need to get their feet on the ground and start taking some tangible steps to moving forward.”