On December 20, 2018, the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (OR), released its report regarding the year-long investigation into sexual abuse within the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and its National Governing Bodies (NGB’s).
The investigation unearthed a number of systemic failures to protect athletes from sexual predators. The report acknowledges the work the USOC has done to-date to address these systemic issues but also states unequivocally that “vulnerabilities in the system still exist.”
As the Athletes Advisory Chairman for USA Track & Field, I’ve been asked to comment about these series of concerns on several occasions. One of the most thought-provoking questions that I typically encounter is: Can the USOC (and NGB’s) regain the trust of the athletes and rebuild its public image?
The short answer to this question is: yes. The longer answer is: it’s going to take time, transparency, and a new way of doing things. This problem took decades to create and it’s not going to be rectified overnight or simply by swapping out the CEO and a couple board members.
In their report, the Energy and Commerce Committee created a list of recommendations for the USOC and the NGB’s, many of which are logical (i.e. consistent policies for background checks and a database through which NGB’s can share information) but others do not address the fundamental issues: transparency and quid pro quo.
Transparency is not something that should be used only when it suits the USOC but is a tool that can be used to build trust; even when things are not going well. Athletes will respect the USOC more if they are open and honest about their current status and how things actually are and not how the USOC wants the public to perceive them to be. Athletes want to know not only that their concerns heard but that they are taken seriously because let’s face it, the medal count is extremely important to the USOC and the NGB’s. The medal count is simply the total number of medals won by a country at the Olympic Games (or World Championship Events). The perception and issues have been that the USOC and NGB’s only care about ensuring that Team USA wins the medal count which makes the Olympic Movement in the United States more appealing to potential sponsors thus increasing revenue. This means that at the heart of some very difficult decisions was financial at the expense of the athletes.
The athletes want to know that they are not crazy for what they are experiencing and have their concerns addressed. Transparency also comes in the form of having clear processes for filing complaints and for the follow-ups.
Several NGB’s have filled positions on their Olympic and Senior Teams not solely based on performance but based on sexual favors given to the coach (or staff personnel) for their position on the team as we have found out in the case of USA Gymnastics. There has also been multiple cases reported in USA Swimming [Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming]. Athletes as susceptible to this kind of persuasion because the coach is perceived to have the entire future of this athlete’s career in the palm of their hand and therefore can essentially force compliance. This is how sexual predators are allowed to roam free and unobstructed before anything is done about it. Creating objective standards and qualification metrics and removing the ambiguity around team selection will greatly help to reduce this kind of quid pro quo culture that has allowed to persist for so long. However, this alone is not enough. Athletes have to be encouraged to speak out without fear of repercussion or backlash from the NGB’s or USOC.
As an athlete and as a spokesman for athletes, I no longer want to hear about what the USOC or Congress “should” do, I am only interested in what they “will” do. Otherwise, the recommendations the Energy & Commerce Committee created are just for show and don’t go far enough to effect real change.