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Latest USOC reform group shows promise by avoiding usual suspects

December 11, 2009 |  6:51 am

It would be polite to say I was skeptical when the U.S. Olympic Committee announced Nov. 12 that it had appointed an independent advisory committee chaired by former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to make another potentially costly assessment of the USOC's governance structure and operations.

There now is reason to hope this effort will not be as futile as several others that have preceded it: Tagliabue and almost all the 13 other committee members named Thursday (click here for the list) are not among the "usual suspects" who have served on previous such committees.  (One who was there in the past, Jim McCarthy, always was unafraid to be a voice of dissenting reason.) That shows a refreshing bit of out-of-the-box thinking.

Tagliabue's input concentrated on the four members without direct links to the Olympic movement.  The rest are athletes; past and present leaders of USOC constituencies like national sports federations; and Chicago 2016 chairman Patrick Ryan.

"I couldn't tell you who the usual suspects are," Tagliabue said in a phone conversation Thursday. "I was trying to come up with people who were a good mix of experience: sports, not-for-profit, business, a few younger people, all of whom understand sports, the 21st century and the United States and international marketplace."

There already have been six assessments of how the USOC runs itself since 1988 -- one, by high-end consultants McKinsey & Co., cost $600,000. The sisyphean sum of them was wasted time, money and effort. The revolving door in USOC leadership continued, with several major changes in the last year, and the organization became more and more of a laughingstock whose actions amused, bemused and irritated the rest of the global Olympic community, all reflected in Chicago's first-round ouster from the 2016 host city voting.

Only the most recent governance review, done by internal and independent groups compelled by congressional hearings when USOC dysfunction hit a new low in 2003, had a significant effect.  It cut the size of the USOC board from 125 voting members to nine.

Tagliabue-1 Now, that revised structure has come under criticism because it created a board so small, with such a large percentage of independent directors who knew nothing about how the Olympic movement works, that it was easily dominated by a group or a member.  In this case, it was a man, former USOC chairman Peter Ueberroth, whose management style might be euphemistically described as authoritarian.

While Ueberroth was replaced by Larry Probst 14 months ago, the seeds of discontent and distrust between the board and its constituencies -- mainly the national federations (NGBs) that govern individual sports -- had bloomed into a kudzu of suspicion that entangled everything.  Thus: the NGB leaders' demand after Chicago's Oct. 2 rout that both Probst and interim CEO Stephanie Streeter step down immediately.

Streeter, a lightning rod for criticism since a power play ousted Jim Scherr in March and put her in the job, withdrew her name from the permanent CEO search and agreed to leave before the Vancouver Olympics. Probst, determined to prove his detractors wrong and angered by ever-increasing vituperation in their attacks on him, pledged to devote full-time to fixing the USOC's problems and defied any efforts to run him off.      

Step 1 for Probst was implementing the CEO search, which is supposed to produce an appointment in early January.

Step 2 was naming Tagliabue as head of the committee that would review the way the USOC governs itself and operates.  Probst, former CEO of Electronic Arts, got to know Tagliabue through the video games giant's relationship with the NFL, although their relationship was strictly business, and they had spent minimal time together.

"I thought Larry ran a great company," Tagliabue said. "He was open, transparent, no gamesmanship."

Step 3 came Thursday, when the USOC named 13 members of the committee (not including Probst) that will work with Tagliabue, who has been talking with NGB leaders and others familiar with the USOC for the last month.

The committee includes enough people with Olympic movement experience (including USA Triathlon chief executive Skip Gilbert, Probst's most vocal and harshest critic; Paralympians, Olympians; and businessmen with sports backgrounds, like Washington Wizards and Mystics owner Raul Fernandez) to satisfy those dissatisfied about the lack of such people on the USOC board.

Tagliabue clearly seems inclined to recommend a larger USOC board than the current one, which now includes just eight voting members, two of whom (the U.S. members of the International Olympic Committee) share one vote.  He just returned from chairing a meeting of the Georgetown University board, which has 45 members, a size he called workable.

"In the NFL, we had a 32-member board, and that was workable," he said.

Tagliabue also said a USOC board would work better if it included strong committees in several key areas -- athlete performance, TV / new media, facilities, finance, international relations.  Such a board would probably need no fewer than 25 members.

"A larger bunch can be handled," he said. "My hunch is this board should be expanded to be made more representative and get additional skill sets on it."

Tagliabue said he expects the committee to meet three times before issuing a report in March.  The only significant expenses will be travel; all the committee members are working pro bono.

"Everything starts with those two 2003 reports," he said. "What I have been hearing from most people involved pre-2003 and post-2003 is a lot of what was recommended and adopted hit the mark, but obviously there are quite a few pieces missing or we wouldn't be where we are.

"There has been so much negativity and criticism after the decision on Chicago and along the way.  But I am surprised as I talk to people, once they get beyond venting, they really say, 'We don't have to go back to Square One here.' "

Tagliabue boils the governance issues down to three questions:

  • Where did the 2003 reforms hit the mark?
  • Where did they miss the mark in terms of structure?
  • Where did the USOC get the structure right but have some individual or group of individuals drive the train off the track?

As he began to explore those issues, Tagliabue began to feel the committee needed to explore more than governance.

"The USOC is a part of a complex network of organizations," he said. "A lot of people felt there was not a lot of clarity in terms of what people in the network really expect the USOC to do.

"They build training facilities for some sports, not others.  If they [the USOC] build a training center, does that mean they are responsible for producing great athletes or is the NGB responsible?  The feeling I was getting is one of 'We don't know where our role ends and theirs begins.'

"And you've got 40 different models [for the NGBs' role].  So I felt there was a question we needed to address about the operating model of this network:  who is responsible for what, who funds what, how do you raise the funding, how do you decide how it goes out to the federations?

"Everyone seems to agree that we have been arguing about that for 15 years or more. If you don't have clarity, you'll be running into each other when you shouldn't run into each other, and you don't hire the right people to do the right jobs."

The USOC has shown stunning skill in hiring the wrong people for two decades.  And if you are running around like a clueless chicken with its head removed, you are bound to bump into someone else doing the same job -- just as badly.

If the USOC gets the right CEO and a board structure the chairman cannot rule like a fiefdom, it has a chance to do more than get out of its own way.  Maybe even bring another Olympics to the United States.

-- Philip Hersh

Photo: Paul Tagliabue.  Credit: Chuck Burton / Associated Press