contributor perspectives

Feb 5, 2018 | 09:00 GMT

6 mins read

The Dark Side of the American Sports Success Story

Board of Contributors
Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
Sterling Riethman, a former patient of USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, testifies about the extent of his abuse of her under the guise of medical treatment.
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • A government authority does not directly oversee a number of the aspects of the U.S. amateur sports landscape, unlike in the rest of the world.
  • The structure gives the governing boards for individual sports great latitude but can allow misdeeds to be covered up.
  • A 'hybrid' system involving a public-private partnership could fill in the regulatory gaps, obviating the need to create another bureaucracy.

I must admit that I felt a bit of nationalist pride when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the decision to ban the Russian Olympic team from competing in the Pyeongchang Winter Games. At least the United States, I could say, wasn't systematically cheating its way to the top of the medal tables. But then … details surfaced about a very different scandal pertaining to the Olympics. And those details were sickening. The scandal burst into the spotlight from a Michigan courtroom, where a parade of U.S. gymnasts, including a number of Olympians, testified during the punishment phase of the trial of USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, who had been convicted of sexually abusing them under the guise of medical treatment.

In addition to my faculty job here at the University of Texas at Austin, I maintain a small connection to the international sports organizations that I study. Several years ago, the IOC officially included my research facility at UT (the renowned H.J. Lutcher Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports) within its network of affiliated academic institutions. And I also serve as one of the five members on the advisory council for an academic initiative that the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) sponsors called the U.S. Olympic Academy.

These affiliations are important to me, as they help to link my life to that of my grandfather, Dr. Paul E. Pierce. He was both my personal and professional hero — World War II naval officer, national championship coach, college professor and for four years a member of the board of directors of the USOC. Granddad also was the most kindhearted person whom I've ever met. I don't think living up to his legacy is possible, but it's been the guiding force of my life.

Cheating on the playing field usually leads to swift punishment from sports authorities. Significant malfeasance outside competition, on the other hand, is a very different story. What, you might ask, does this have to do with geopolitics? And I must admit that the linkages would be easy to overstate. But national reputation does play a role in world affairs. The Olympic doping scandal certainly has affected perceptions of Russia in the global community. And the episode has shed light on the degree to which the administration of President Vladimir Putin sees sport as a tool for strengthening the nationalism that bolsters his rule. The news that U.S. gymnasts had for years suffered sexual torment from a team doctor will blacken the global image of the United States in the same way.

Beyond the optics, the episode sheds light on the unique way the United States approaches athletic governance. Certainly, no other country treats sports in the same way at the college and high school level. But the role of the federal government in U.S. sports is also at odds with global norms. Most countries regulate athletics through some type of national structure, whether a ministry or commission. But the U.S. approach is much more laissez faire about the industry. This developed in part from its federalist political ideology, but it is also a framework that the nation's athletic officials have promoted. Sports are inherently apolitical, the argument goes. And so, they should fall outside the control of governmental authorities.

In the 1970s, the administration of President Gerald Ford studied the lack of a coherent national sports policy. The central goal of the project was to boost the competitiveness of U.S. teams without resorting to a Soviet-style, centrally controlled system. The recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Olympic Sports led to the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. This legislation chartered the USOC as a nongovernmental organization tasked with being "the coordinating body for amateur athletic activity in the United States directly relating to international amateur athletic competition."

Within this framework, the USOC has power to hold hearings over infractions by the individual national athletic organizations such as USA Gymnastics. But it has little in the way of investigative power and few ways to punish the federations, other than to redirect funding or strip their designation as governing bodies of the sport. Neither the USOC or the federations receive much direct support from the national government. But they do benefit indirectly through their tax-exempt status. And in contrast to the situation in other countries, a great deal of the training for U.S. Olympians happens at the college level. And here, the NCAA and the various universities receive the same benefit.

It is easy for American sports officials to 'look the other way' when something bad happens.

This model has benefitted U.S. Olympic teams in many ways. Even though a great majority of Americans are brought up playing football, basketball or baseball — sports that contribute little to the country's place on the medal tables at international competitions — the United States is undeniably an Olympic superpower. But along with that advantage, however, U.S. sports governance comes with a significant downside. Facing little in the way of governmental oversight and under enormous pressure from many corners to produce winners, it is easy for American sports officials to "look the other way" when something bad happens, especially in a successful program. Even after multiple reports of sexual abuse, Nassar was allowed to continue to treat the young athletes under his charge. More than 150 of them testified at his recent trial in stomach-churning detail about the lingering psychological effects of the abuse they suffered.

One wonders, then, whether the United States needs a dedicated regulatory body backed by the authority of government for sports. This doesn't mean that the country should create a new federal department in line with the sports ministries other countries have put in place. But it may be possible that a form of "hybrid" oversight might be useful. This is exactly the model that the U.S. Congress has followed in a bipartisan bill that has been sent to the White House for a presidential signature.

The Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorization Act of 2017 would require that U.S. Olympic and youth sports organizations inform law enforcement authorities of any instances of suspected abuse. It also would empower the nonprofit U.S. Center for SafeSport with investigatory and oversight responsibilities in those cases. Such regulatory partnerships between public and private actors are plentiful. They even exist in the sports world: The World Anti-Doping Agency is one such example. Other models may, of course, also deserve consideration. But the bottom line is that America's athletes deserve better.

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