After Larry Nassar scandal, USOC needs new approach

To the outside world, Scott Blackmun’s resignation in late February as CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee looked like a leader deemed at least partially responsible for a debacle and subsequently pushed aside.

But looks can be deceiving.

[content-1] After eight nonstop, productive years of redirecting and leading the USOC to new heights, Blackmun stepped down as the nation clamored for changes in the American Olympic movement. Something had to give in light of the repulsive sexual abuse committed by former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, whose vile behavior continued for years before he was stopped.

The story was widely reported, if never officially proven: Blackmun learned about the abuse in 2015 and didn’t expose it beyond telling USA Gymnastics to inform law enforcement, which happened days later when the FBI was contacted. So, many felt he had to go, just as USA Gymnastics had to sweep away its top leadership, staff and volunteers. In the aftermath, more than a few former Olympians have demanded that the USOC should have done, and must do, more to protect its athletes. Some naysayers also alleged that the USOC had to be fixed, cleansed and sanitized. Other sports, notably swimming and figure skating, now have their own issues.

Here in Colorado Springs, where the title of Olympic City USA has become such a treasured asset, the USOC’s sudden loss of equilibrium understandably could be viewed as a threat. After four decades of covering, watching and following the Olympic movement at all levels, my feelings are more complex.

Yes, these are trying times for the USOC. On the national level, its image has taken a hit. But the tarnish doesn’t have to be permanent.

[content-2] First, let’s deal with Blackmun. He was not hired in early 2010 to be a mighty commissioner, a czar ruling over his kingdom as in the major pro sports. He had worked for the USOC previously, even serving as interim CEO a decade earlier. So he was a known quantity — a gifted administrator and attorney with solid instincts and priorities, no discernible ego, able to mend fences and forge new relationships, also adept at placing people in the right jobs and roles.

Assuming Blackmun simply trusted the FBI to root out a bad guy, he could have weathered this storm, and the most high-profile CEO based in Colorado Springs may have been the best person to guide the USOC through this difficult time. But not while fighting a huge, more personal battle: undergoing aggressive treatment for prostate cancer.

Blackmun doesn’t seem to be hiding from anything, and perhaps he could have taken a leave of absence instead of resigning quietly and looking more like a scapegoat. But this was his judgment, and at some point if Blackmun beats the cancer, at 60, there might still be a place in the Olympic family for his wisdom, expertise and vision. He could be ideal, for example, as a member of the International Olympic Committee or helping lead the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. If he’d rather focus locally, he could oversee the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame. [pullquote-1]

As for the USOC, it must adjust to a new reality. For the past four decades, the USOC has taken care of sponsorships, TV deals, operations, training centers and improved financial support for athletes. Individual sports generally have run themselves, cleaning up their own messes, dealing with disciplinary issues, and picking Olympians and support staff.

That will change now. If a sport as prominent as gymnastics couldn’t police itself, and other sports appear to have their own troubles, the USOC must be more heavy-handed keeping all sports fully accountable in ways beyond winning medals.

Rest assured, the USOC will develop new processes to protect all athletes and encourage anyone to report abuses, certain or perceived. It should be as convincing as the movement’s forceful steps in recent years to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs. Watch for new standards, guidelines, requirements and open lines of communication to report issues. The U.S. Center for SafeSport will help. [content-3]

Beyond that, the USOC must take proactive steps to repair its public — and internal — credibility. That means identifying a fresh generation of leaders, likely not including a CEO with roots and relationships in Colorado Springs, as Blackmun had. But that shouldn’t be cause for major concern. Many inside the USOC now embrace Colorado Springs as the proper home for the movement, and that affection should intensify after the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame opens.

Now is also the time for the USOC to better utilize its most precious possession — former Olympians. Make them the faces and voices of the USOC moving forward. It could mean a leadership council, starting with such recognizable names as Bonnie Blair, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis, Amy Van Dyken, Edwin Moses, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Gabby Douglas, Lisa Leslie, Mike Eruzione ... you get the idea.

And if any of them want to live in Colorado Springs, then Olympic City USA should roll out the welcome mat.

Something tells me Scott Blackmun would approve.