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Call for U.S. Olympics CCO

A special commission reviewing the sorry state of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has published its final report, calling for the appointment of a chief compliance officer and sweeping reforms to the Olympic Committee’s corporate culture.

Known as the Borders Commission, the group was established last year to review how the USOPC mishandled the scandal of Larry Nassar abusing hundreds of U.S. gymnasts for nearly 20 years. Since the Nassar scandal became public in 2016, the public has endured one appalling news story after another of abuse victims whose complaints were ignored, hushed up, or otherwise stifled. 

Last year the House Energy and Commerce Committee published a report of its own, detailing “a number of breakdowns and failures” in how the USOPC handled athletes’ complaints about abuse from coaches or staff. A primary problem was how the USOPC worked with the national governing bodies (NGBs) that oversee various sports operating under the USOPC umbrella. That would include USA Gymnastics, the NGB at the heart of the Nassar debacle, and which filed for bankruptcy last December. 

Anyway, that’s the history. The Borders Commission is the first report to recommend improvements for the USOPC’s future — and developing a culture of compliance, from chief compliance officer to stronger whistleblower reporting and case management systems, is one of the main points.

The USOPC must appoint a chief compliance 0fficer who should be given broad and primary authority and responsibility for overseeing USOPC compliance with its internal policies and procedures… The USOPC must have, and the CCO must develop, a more robust and comprehensive whistleblower policy and reporting system which will ensure no retaliation.

Susanne Lyons, chair of the USOPC, welcomed the Borders Commission report with all the flattery one would expect from an organization with zero credibility these days. “We look forward to reviewing the full report,” she said in a statement, “and taking appropriate actions to implement and reinforce meaningful reforms to create a culture and environment where athletes can achieve both personal well-being and competitive success.” 

Olympic-Sized Oversight Challenge

One significant issue will be how the USOPC brings more oversight to those national governing bodies: more than 50 of them, from large ones like U.S. Track & Field to small ones like USA Team Handball. (Apologies if I just offended any handball-playing compliance officers out there.) 

The USOPC currently “recognizes” each NGB, making it eligible to send athletes as part of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. But the standards each NGB has for managing its sport and caring for athletes have been all over the place, from excellent to poor. Clearly that isn’t a function of the NGB’s size, either, since USA Gymnastics was one of the largest and also one of the worst. 

So the Borders Commission has called for the USOPC to certify the NGBs, according to a more stringent and comprehensive set of expectations. Specifically:

In addition to the USOPC’s current financial program audits of NGBs, the USOPC must undertake biennial compliance audits against the certification requirements. In response to any deficiencies, a range of corrective steps and penalties must be formulated and available to and monitored by the USOPC, culminating in decertification of the NGB.

In other words, the USOPC should implement a de facto system of third-party due diligence and oversight. The Borders Commission doesn’t specifically say the chief compliance officer must be involved in that project, but it would be the logical move, given the intertwined nature of third parties and a strong speakup culture. 

The Borders Commission also calls for the USOPC to rebuild its culture generally, toward a more “athlete-centric culture and mission.” That should include annual culture assessments by an outside party, and probably even a rewrite of the USOPC’s mission statement and Code of Conduct (last updated in December 2018). Tart words here: 

The Commission finds the USOPC’s recently enacted mission statement and principles — which are critical because they provide the standard upon which the success of the USOPC will judged and the directors’ fiduciary duties will be measured — still retains the fingerprints of the past and strongly encourages the Board to revisit it. 

You get the idea. The USOPC is a wreck, its reputation in tatters and its need for reform a mile long. 

Indeed, it’s telling that when I went to the USOC website to find the Code of Conduct, it took me six clicks from the home page to find the document — and even then, only because I knew to check the small type at the bottom that said “Governance,” and then poke around the “Legal” subpage. One can only imagine the confusion a 17-year-old athlete abused by his or coach would have. Six clicks to find a Code of Conduct is five too many.

All that said, for an ambitious compliance professional who likes sports, this sounds like a rare professional challenge. Let’s hope the USOPC moves to adopt these recommendations and get that job filled, pronto. We have a long list of victims proving why these reforms are urgent, and don’t need any more.

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