Pyeongchang, South Korea – U.S. Olympic Committee leaders defended CEO Scott Blackmun’s response to sex-abuse complaints from gymnasts, and said no decision on Blackmun’s future would be made until an independent investigation spells out how he, and the USOC as a whole, handled the matter.
Blackmun is under fire from critics who say he didn’t do enough upon learning about abuse by Larry Nassar, who treated gymnasts on the U.S. team in his role as a volunteer doctor. Two U.S. senators and a group led by gold-medal swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar, which includes 17 other Olympians, are among those calling for the CEO’s resignation.
Blackmun is home in Colorado Springs, Colorado, recovering from surgery to treat prostate cancer, leaving chairman Larry Probst and America’s other two IOC members, Anita DeFrantz and Angela Ruggiero, to speak about the CEO’s future Friday at a pre-Olympics news conference in which 14 of the 20 questions asked were about the gymnastics scandal.
“I’ve known him for a very long time. I thought he’s done a great job for us, and think he deserves to have everything cleared before we take any action,” DeFrantz said. “I don’t know what the investigation will show, but I’m pretty confident it will show he did a great job.”
At issue is Blackmun’s response in the summer of 2015 upon learning about allegations against Nassar after a phone conversation with Steve Penny, who was president of USA Gymnastics. The USOC has said that USAG reported it was in the process of contacting appropriate law enforcement agencies when it notified the USOC of the case.
Penny reported Nassar to the FBI’s Indianapolis office in July 2015, and USAG cut ties with Nassar. The FBI investigation took several months, and while it was ongoing, Nassar, who also worked at Michigan State, continued to assault patients until a woman filed a complaint with police and went public with her story in August 2016.
During a sentencing hearing for Nassar, more than 150 women and girls testified in gut-wrenching detail about how they were abused. A number of them, including Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman, called for consequences for the USOC.
Last year, Blackmun pressed for Penny’s resignation. Last month, Blackmun called for and received the resignations of the entire USAG board.
“Scott has served the USOC with distinction since 2010,” Probst said. “We believe he did the right thing at the right time. The board fully supports Scott and will wait to see results of the investigation before taking any decision or action.”
More immediately, the USOC is reviewing its working relationship with the more than 40 sports organizations it oversees, known as national governing bodies (NGBs). It’s those organizations that have the day-to-day responsibility for running programs that eventually produce Olympians.
Previous abuse scandals involving Olympic swimmers, speedskaters and taekwondo athletes, among others, were part of what triggered Blackmun to form the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is responsible for investigating all abuse cases involving Olympic athletes.
The center opened only last year, however, and critics of the USOC’s response say the federation has been turning a blind eye to abuse for decades.
In calling for Blackmun’s ouster, Hogshead-Makar’s committee put out a news release that said “Blackmun and the USOC refused to hold themselves or NGBs accountable for their failures to protect athletes in order to avoid civil liability.” The committee put out a 14-page list, dating to 1988, of incidents when it claimed either Blackmun or the USOC failed to act to protect athletes.
Probst used the news conference to reiterate an apology to abused athletes, and for failing to send a representative to listen to the testimony at Nassar’s first sentencing hearing, which was for federal child pornography crimes.
“We are not trying to absolve ourselves from responsibility,” Probst said. “We could have done more. You can always do more. People say, ‘Should we have done an investigation?’ The FBI was notified. They do criminal investigations. We don’t do that. But of course, we could’ve done more.”