The U.S. Olympic Committee’s self-commissioned investigation into the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal placed some of the blame on the body’s evolution since the 1980s from a volunteer group to a modern corporation, leaving athletes with a diminished voice.
But those changes enjoyed widespread support at the time. The first major change agent, the 1989 commission report led by George Steinbrenner, came just after the U.S. team won a paltry six medals at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games and then-Executive Director Harvey Schiller resigned after only 19 days, citing bureaucratic tangles.
With hundreds of people in the USOC’s leading House of Delegates, and nearly 100 on its executive board, paid executives simply couldn’t react to the rapidly changing world fast enough, said former Chicago Tribune reporter Philip Hersh, who covered the reforms.
“The U.S. Olympic Committee and most of the national governing bodies at that point were — dysfunctional is too strong a word, but — hardly functional,” Hersh said. “Because there was too much input, and too much time wasted in discussion, and a lot of people used the annual meeting as a place to both make their voice heard on important issues but also do a lot of grandstanding.”
The current form of governance came into shape in 2003, after another round of embarrassing controversy following the Salt Lake City Olympics. The board shrank to 11. It now stands at 15.
The Ropes & Gray report, issued Dec. 10, credited those changes for pulling more money into the movement, modernizing medical resources and, ultimately, pushing Team USA to dominance on the field of play. But it also created an excessively hierarchical relationship with athletes, the report said, which contributed to the slow response to the Nassar allegations because athletes couldn’t speak out without fear of reprisal, or they weren’t heard.
“Everyone’s become much more professionalized, which is a good thing,” said Han Xiao, chairman of the Athletes’ Advisory Council. “… The only problem is athletes got left by the wayside in terms of a lot of the operational decisions that need to be made day to day.”
Changes must be made that allow athletes to be on more equal footing with administrators, Xiao said, which is hard because their careers are so much shorter. He suggested ideas ranging from a few paid staffers at the advisory council to a full-blown athletes union. “It’s very, very difficult for currently competing athletes and recently retired athletes to be experts on everything they need to be to be effective advocates,” Xiao said.
The USOC’s newly created Athlete & NGB Engagement Commission, better known as the Borders Commission after its chair, former WNBA President Lisa Borders, is beginning to evaluate structural changes. Its closed-door deliberations are ongoing.