Institutional responsibility and the US Olympic Committee

The end of 2017 has been an explosive and revelatory time for public disclosures about culturally-pervasive sexual harassment and abuse. In most cases the reporting has focused on exposing various individuals, who committed their offenses with the full force of their power and prominence within their communities, organizations, and industries. All too often, the courageous narratives presented by the individuals who come forward to tell their stories include the fact that their harasser or abuser systematically prevented them from work advancement or access to work at all, in many cases withholding employment opportunities and in some cases, even coordinating with other men in positions of authority to prevent the women from working in the future.

The many (and continuing) disclosures about the inappropriate and dangerous behavior of these high-profile men has been a cultural watershed moment. Hopefully this heightened awareness will lead to a transformation in the public discourse about societal expectations around these dynamics, as well as justice for the women who have had their lives negatively impacted and their careers curbed or ended. However, many questions remain in what structural progress, if any, will come from the individual cases, no matter how numerous they become.

Thus far, far-reaching institutional responses to the misconduct of these individuals has been lacking or entirely absent. The best most organizations have been able to muster is routine HR statements that the accused men are being suspended or will resign, sometimes accompanied by saccharine denials of knowledge and expressions of regret, and seldom followed up with any significant sort of commitment to organizational change or an authentic intention toward setting a standard for corporate social justice.

Corporate boards and senior management at organizations under fire for the unacceptable behaviors of their principals and often most visible representatives have proven lacking in the unfolding of this cultural moment, which is driven by individuals and targeted at individuals. While certainly these are cases where bad people did bad things, it is important to acknowledge that they were empowered to do so, implicitly or in some cases expressly but with a blind eye toward their malfeasance, by the organizational structures which promoted and supported them and oppressed and marginalized their victims.

For more on the complicity of corporate leadership and the dubiousness of their malleability to change even amid the major societal focus on these issues, check out these great pieces from Wired:  Corporate boards are complicit in sexual harassment and Making the silence breakers Time’s Person of the Year won’t change anything.

One particularly beleaguered institution that is confronting the limitations of its definition of its own institutional responsibility is the US Olympic Committee. Ethical and integrity questions about the actions of individuals associated with the US Olympic Committee are nothing new. Incidences of cheating, doping, and abusive behaviors by coaching and medical staff are, unfortunately, nothing new. Because the US Olympic Committee relies on a vast network of local personnel who train, recruit, develop, and support athletes often from a very young age. Under these conditions, athletes, their schools, and their families place tremendous trust in the representatives and related parties to the US Olympic Committee that they rely upon to bring their Olympic ambitions to fruition.

All too often, predatory coaches are reported by a victim only to have multiple other athletes come forward to say that they too were mistreated and abused. Organizations within the US Olympic Committee’s umbrella ban individuals proactively upon revelations of sexual abuse, and make efforts to distribute guidelines and ensure education, but underreporting of instances of sexual assault mean that predator coaches prey on athletes for entirely too long undetected.

The reality is, the US Olympic Committee has 48 national governing bodies underneath it which thousands of club teams and gyms underneath that. The sheer volume of organizational and administrative entities through which these abuses pass and would need to be addressed or investigated, all without a national entity or a mandatory supervisor to set a compulsory standard for this, is one of the greatest forces working against effective identification and removal of predatory coaches. In this context, major organizations such as the US Olympic Commission too often focus on removing individuals without identifying root causes or building defense structures against the underlying problems.

Changes are too often driven by media exposure and fear of reputational damage, and too infrequently motivated by compassion or justice. Until these institutions adapt their approaches to address sexual abuse as directly as they can their commercial concerns, and until adequate oversight and control measures are taken with meaningful enforcement actions to back them up, individuals will continue to be harmed.

Organizations must change from operating independently on these issues, which provides them with the plausible deniability of jurisdictional ignorance and a patchwork of ineffective rules and procedures for processing sexual assault claims and investigations. Instead, senior leadership must stand up and make these processes uniform and coherent so that they can be not just a pretense, but also effective in protecting individuals and taking responsibility. Only then can the brave testimonies of individuals lead to organizational change toward practices that will respect and protect them.

For more about the US Olympic Committee’s challenges in defining and enforcing a meaningful code against sexual abuse and misconduct in its ranks, check out this article from Harper’s Magazine:  Pushing the Limit.

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