LANE ONE: “Team Integrity” has its own recommendations for USOC reform; some of them are good

The introduction of a bill by Colorado Senator Cory Gardner (R) to form a Congressionally-managed committee to review the operations of the United States Olympic Committee is having a salutary effect on the discourse surrounding the USOC.

It’s getting more pertinent.

One of the most vocal critics, the self-identified “Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC,” has mostly called for the Board and others associated with the organization to resign. That’s not happening, but now the group has come forward with something that might be useful: a set of specific recommendations about what should be done moving forward.

Their submittal ran to 10 pages, including 12 action items, so here they are, along with some comments of our own:

1. The Olympic Movement can only protect athletes by shifting power, requiring the following governance changes:

● (a) Provide for direct athlete representation on the USOC Board of Directors
● (b) Designate 50% of the USOC Board seats for athletes
● (c) Remove the ten-year rule to be considered an “athlete”
● (d) Compensate athlete representatives
● (e) Establish a 2-4 year firewall between serving on the AAC and employment at the USOC, NGBs, and the U.S. Center for SafeSport
● (f) Provide the AAC with professional staff

Many of these changes have been requested previously and are not new. Under the present USOC By-Laws, the USOC Board must include six independent members, three from a slate proposed by the National Governing Bodies Council, three from the slate offered by the Athletes Advisory Council and the U.S. members of the International Olympic Committee.

Direct election to the Board is a minor change from the current procedure and should not be problematic, but brings forward the question of how these people are elected and who elects them. This has to be specified.

The real issue is the amount of Board representation for “athletes” and how “athletes” are defined. The current text of the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act defines “athletes” as those “actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition within the preceding 10 years.” The recommendation to re-define this restriction can be argued both ways, since someone who competed 35 years ago in the 1984 Olympic Games may have no current knowledge about Olympic sports today, or could be an activist who has their own agenda which may or may not advance the activities of today’s athletes.

What is certain is that today’s top athletes barely have time to attend endless meetings and conference calls. They are trying to compete at their best and USOC activities are hardly their top priority. How many years one can be removed from active participation and still be a contributor on the issues is worth debate.

The hot-button issue in these recommendations will be how many athletes should be on the USOC Board. During a 2018 hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) asked the leadership of four national governing bodies if they would voluntarily commit to more than 50% representation on their Boards; one said yes, three said no. And the reason was that there is more to a National Governing Body or the USOC than just athletes. There are coaches, officials, facilities, sponsors, broadcasters, and because so many athletes are young, parents and guardians. All of these people have a role and as athlete support now includes athletic, medical, nutritional, psychological and travel support, all of these folks needs to have their input recognized as well. So 50% is not going to work; but a raise to 33-40% could be viable, possibly with an expanded Board from the 14 members now. The current law simply places a floor of 20% athlete representation, with no upper limit, so no legislation is needed for this.

As for paying the Athlete Representatives on the Athletes Advisory Council, the question is how much and what is expected in return? The USOC’s AAC representatives pages lists 71 people who are Olympic and Paralympic reps. Paying them is fine, but what are they supposed to do for the money? How much time are they expected to commit? The recommendation doesn’t say anything about that.

Same for providing the AAC with staff. Fine, but to do what?

2. Athletes must be afforded better whistleblower and retaliation protection

This is quite important, but what constitutes “retaliation” has to be defined.

3. The USOC must compel NGBs to comply with the Sports Act and USOC by-laws

This will be a major outgrowth of the entire USOC review process. The USOC and the NGBs will have to change the way they operate, the way they select teams and the way they handle disputes. One of the most interesting comments made by Athletes’ Advisory Council chair Han Xiao (from table tennis) is that U.S. athletes want more objective standards for making teams, which could also remove significant aspects of “retaliatory” behavior. This was underscored as regards gymnastics in the Ropes & Gray report.

4. The USOC must provide athletes with the same due process requirements that it mandates NGBs provide athletes

This requires a change to the Act, but the question of due process must also consider the issue of time, as in what constitutes “due process” when the hard deadline for entry into the Olympic or Pan American Games is 48 hours away? The inevitable “emergency” decision on a “due process” issue is what needs to be planned for.

5. The USOC must protect American athletes’ opportunity to compete

This item complains about the format of athlete complaints that they have been denied the opportunity to be on an Olympic or World Championship team. If the “Athlete Advocate” concept proposed by Xiao in his Senate Subcommittee testimony (and recommended by Team Integrity) is enacted, this will largely fall to that office. The question once again is what to do in “emergencies” and how fast-action “protections” are to be afforded. Organizing committees of Olympic, Paralympic and Pan American Games are hardly interested in the USOC’s procedures; they have entry deadlines so they can get their events on in time.

6. Create an Athlete Advocate position, with staff

Xiao asked for this and it’s a good idea in the current climate. As Xiao proposed it, this is essentially an in-house legal-aid program for athletes to give advice and front their appeals. It’s fine as an idea, but must be defined as to scope and finality of appeals.

7. Establish an office of Inspector General

This is another Xiao recommendation from his Senate Subcommittee testimony and will require Congressional action. The percentage of athletes on the Board and this item will be the hot-button issues for the Congress.

A good reason to do this is that the Congress has no interest, time or understanding of Olympic sport to deal with the USOC and the NGBs and an Inspector General gives it a single point of contact to ask if the Sports Act is being observed. The bad aspect is that it will cost U.S. taxpayers more money.

8. Revise current AAA arbitration procedures

The recommendations state that the current arbitration process is too expense and hard to navigate for athletes, so the American Arbitration Association needs to make a marketing deal with the USOC to reduce costs, or another dispute-resolution system must be found.

Before doing anything, let’s hear what the AAA says and whether having an Athlete Advocate (and staff) eliminates the need for this change.

9. Consider additional by-law amendments

Let’s see the amendments. The Team Integrity laundry list is already long; they were smart to ask for “consideration” of other amendments and not implementation of whatever they propose.

10. The USOC must cut ties with anti-athlete law firms including those that participated in the Nassar cover up

This is very tricky and essentially prevents the USOC from – in theory – being able to select the representation it desires. Buried in the request is the recommendation that athletes who prevail in an action against the USOC should be reimbursed for their legal expenses is worth considering seriously. This is all tied in with the Athlete Advocate position and must be coordinated with whatever responsibilities are required for that office.

11. The USOC’s current staffing size and compensation levels must be consistent with other non-profits

This is silly, but expected. Team Integrity states that the “number of USOC staff and their pay scales are bloated” in comparison to other non-profits, but this is only true depending on which non-profits you look at. Charity Watch noted that Dr. Craig Thompson, head of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York was paid $5.3 million in 2017. So the USOC isn’t the only one to pay highly.

If Team Integrity wants to complain, it should name names and amounts; the USOC’s top earners are listed on the USOC’s Form 990 filed with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

12. The CEO must consider personnel changes

Send the list, but other groups should be asked to send their lists, too.

Team Integrity makes a positive contribution with these concrete recommendations and their stated rationales. Some of these will be enacted and others don’t require Congressional action at all. But at least the yelling has stopped and an earnest discussion can begin. This is the start of the reform process, so let’s get on with it.

Rich Perelman