“Knock it Down.” Sally Jenkins Says the USOC Needs to Start Over

In recent months the United States Olympic Committee, or USOC, has come under fire for the manner in which it has dealt with–or ignored, depending who you ask–cases of sexual misconduct and predation in organizations including USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming, among others.

Though these stories are freshes in our minds, they are far from the only instances in which the USOC has failed to serve America’s Olympic athletes. Consider when the USA Women’s Ice Hockey team nearly boycotted the 2017 World Championships because they did not receive stipends in non-Olympic years, and even during Olympic years, only received about $1,000 per month for only six months. Or consider that only about 10 percent or less of the USOC’s money is actually directed towards funding Team USA’s Olympians and up-and-comers, whereas the NBA and MLB split 50 percent of their revenues with athletes.

So what gives? Why is the USOC like this, and what can be done to make it better?

Knock. It. Down.

In a recent article, Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post put forward several ideas–including the one above–that she believes could improve the USOC to its very own Executive Board and its overseer, the United States House of Representatives. In an interview with SwimSwam, Jenkins went into further detail and told us why only a complete up-ending of the current USOC will bring about the necessary change and put athletes safety, development, and wellbeing first.

As alluded to above, stark differences in pay exist between members of the USOC Executive Board and the stipends athletes receive. Though the USOC is a non-profit, 501(c)(3) organization, former CEO Scott Blackmun received a $1.275 million salary after bonuses in 2013, while 129 USOC employees receive six-figure salaries, as Jenkins pointed out. The paltry stipend formerly paid to US women’s ice hockey–$6,000 over an entire Olympic quad–and the manner in which the USOC handled the potential 2017 boycott only further emphasizes why the USOC needs new leadership that is not motivated solely by profit.

“USA Hockey actually threatened to bring in replacement players like it was a labor strike. And the USOC just sat and watched,” Jenkins told SwimSwam.

And duping women’s hockey year after year is only the beginning of the wage gap between the suits and the athletes. Larry Probst, the former CEO of Electronic Arts (EA), is Chairman of the Board at the USOC and next in line to move into former CEO Scott Blackmun‘s role as head of the organization.

Jenkins also sees a parallel between the NCAA’s treatment of athletes and the USOC’s, particularly as pertains to Probst. During his time at EA, Probst earned the ire of many NCAA athletes for using their names and likenesses in sports video games, without their permission, though the NCAA allowed it to happen and profited from EA’s appropriation of amateur players. “Larry Probst has made a life out of using the images of NCAA athletes without their permission. Electronic Arts built a billion-dollar business out of screwing the college athletes and didn’t stop until the courts absolutely forced Electronic Arts to stop,” Jenkins told us.

In 2013 some of those athletes, led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, reached a settlement with EA, but the fact that some of those same individuals are now deciding how much of the USOC’s revenue reaches Olympic athletes does not speak to EA and the NCAA ascending to higher moral standards as it does to the USOC prioritizing profit over players.

Jenkins described the confluence of the USOC, the NCAA, and Electronic Arts, to us as such: “…they’re the same old characters, who come with a fundamental, chronic, lack of respect for the athletes. And I just want to see the USOC become an organization with the athletes at its center and not its periphery,” says Jenkins.

OK, so let’s say the USOC’s Executive Board is completely replaced–then who do you put in charge? Colin Powell, Condeleeza Rice, Michael Bloomberg, or Bill Bradley, for starters, suggests Jenkins. Why these individuals?

For starters, they’ve all been in government and helped reorganize major organizations. Specifically, Powell has served in the military, worked for the government, and has extensive non-profit experience. Rice also has extensive non-profit and government experience, and diplomacy skills to boot. Bloomberg for his work with the 9/11 Memorial and other acts of public service on a massive scale as is befitting New York. And Bradley for his government experience, work on New York City’s 2012 Olympic Bid during his time as mayor, and because he was is also an Olympic gold medalist in basketball from the Tokyo 1964 Summer Games, providing him with a deeper understanding of athletes’ lives as well. Powell, Rice, Bloomberg, and Bradley all command bipartisan respect in Washington, another factor crucial to successfully restructuring the USOC, according to Jenkins.

In order to clear the slate and start over, Congressional and Senate committees must make the decision to terminate all members of the Executive Board and then restructure the organization to put athletes first. Though this hasn’t happened yet, Jenkins sees momentum building on both sides of the aisle, particularly with the women in office.

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D, New Hampshire) recently called for a select committee to investigate how sexual abuse such has been allowed to perpetuate in youth sports following the Nassar trial. Senator Joni Ernst (R, Iowa) has supported this motion. Perhaps, suggests Jenkins, if they follow through with this investigation, they will discover that the cause of the problems comes back to lack of funding for athletes and Safe Sport and lack of oversight by NGBs, which also need to be re-evaluated, ensuring athletes are put first.

Beyond all of the USOC’s blunders and failures to keep athletes safe and its immoral use of funding and revenue, Jenkins questions its lobbying practices.

Yes, that’s right, the USOC, through the Monumental Policy Group, lobbies in Washington, which is awfully strange for an organization that is not only government-controlled but also a non-profit. It is true that the USOC does not receive federal funding, but rather strikes deals with corporate sponsors, but it still begs the question: why? As far as Jenkins is concerned, the USOC’s lobbying in Washington “ought to be illegal.”

One method the USOC ought to consider is a national lottery system similar to that used by Great Britain. Jenkins brings up this idea in her article, and we wanted to know more about it, so we asked her and did some of our own research.

Were the United States to follow Great Britain’s model, public lottery players would essentially “pay” Olympic athletes and hopefuls, meaning a percentage of lottery sales would be put towards sponsoring athletes. Per thedrum.com, Britain’s lottery system puts 20% of national lottery ticket sales into funding sports and athletes. Team GB has used this method for every Games after Atlanta 1996, where Britain took home only one gold medal. Since 1997, however, 438 Olympic and Paralympic medals have been won by lottery-funded athletes.

The lottery system could also add a layer of accountability to the USOC, says Jenkins, as it would now be working with a combination of public and private funding. “[A] national lottery wouldn’t hurt a thing, because then it’s a partly-publicly-supported endeavor, and then they have to live with the accountability that comes along with that, with having public money,” Jenkins tells us.

But none of this can happen until the USOC is turned on its head, restructured, and forced to reckon with its short-sightedness and avarice. No longer can the USOC blame other NGBs for serial abusers and neglected athletes. Not one more dollar should go towards those on staff in Colorado Springs until athletes have enough money to train full-time without living at or near the poverty line–no more GoFundMe campaigns or food stamps so Olympians can just “get by.”

If we want reform. If we want to prove to our athletes that we care about them, in the words of Sally Jenkins, “Knock. It. Down.

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Steve Nolan

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I’m not in love with all those ideas – public lotteries are bad! – but knocking down the entire structure and starting over can’t hurt.

harold burbank

powell and rice are associated with war mongering. powell lied to the UN, ramping up to the iraq war. rice never called him out for it; indeed supported him as i recall. these acts are contrary to every olympism ideal (see the charter). the world has not forgotten. bloomberg has no background in sports, just media, money and politics. i’d choose george mitchell. here’s an anecdote. when usa’s ’84 gold medalist the late billy johnson (men’s DH, sarajevo O winter games) made miraculous recovery from TBI suffered trying to qualify for the ’02 salt lake O games, USOC denied my request to have bill in the opening ceremonies. astounded, i lobbied the IOC, and several usa pols, incl george mitchell,to… Read more »

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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