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Woody Paige: CEO Scott Blackmun at center of USOC storm

February 10, 2018 Updated: February 10, 2018 at 9:00 pm
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Larry Nassar appears for his sentencing at Eaton County Circuit Court in Charlotte, Mich., on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018. The former Michigan State University sports-medicine and USA Gymnastics doctor is being sentenced for three first degree criminal sexual abuse charges related to assaults that occurred at Twistars, a gymnastics facility in Dimondale. Nassar has also been sentenced to 60 years in prison for three child pornography charges in federal court and between 40 to 175 years in Ingham County for seven counts of criminal sexual conduct. (Cory Morse /The Grand Rapids Press via AP)

As the 2018 Winter Games commence in Pyeongchang, South Korea, this weekend, the powerful figure in the most prestigious position of United States Olympics is under siege 6,000 miles away in Colorado Springs.

There are severe fissures in the foundation of the U.S. Olympic Committee and its 39 governing bodies because of the most sordid scandal in this country's sports history.

FILE - In this Aug. 1, 2017, file photo, Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, speaks at Yongsan Garrison, a U.S. military base in Seoul, South Korea. USA Gymnastics announced Friday, Jan. 26, 2018, that the remaining 18 USA Gymnastics board members, who are unpaid volunteers representing various threads of the sport across the country, will leave their positions. The announcement came two days after an open letter from USOC chief operating officer Scott Blackmun called for a "full turnover of leadership." (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man, File) 

Scott Blackmun, the USOC's CEO, is caught in the center of the cauldron of controversy.

Blackmun was unable to attend the opening ceremony in South Korea as he recovers from recent prostate cancer surgery.

Based on recent revelations, reports, criticisms and condemnations, can Blackmun recover from and survive cries for his resignation and continue to lead the U.S. Olympic family and movement?

According to his supporters inside the USOC organizations, Blackmun always has been in the forefront of trying to create a protected, secure environment for Olympic athletes, and he is a solutions seeker.

According to his detractors, Blackmun must bear a brunt of the blame for the sexual abuse and assault issues that have escalated in Olympic-sponsored sports for years.

The horrifying saga involving predator-pedophile Larry Nassar reached its depths in court when more than 160 women testified they had been abused by the former USA Gymnastics doctor from 1997-2016. He also pleaded guilty to sexual assaults on athletes at Michigan State, which also employed him for more than a decade. The tremors have been felt from Congress to Korea, the NCAA to the USOC, Indianapolis to Colorado Springs, and in the homes of every family that has a child who desires to be a world-class athlete.

FILE - In this July 31, 2012, file photo, U.S. gymnasts, left to right, Jordyn Wieber, Gabrielle Douglas, McKayla Maroney, Alexandra Raisman and Kyla Ross raise their hands on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Artistic Gymnastic women's team final at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Two-time Olympic medalist McKayla MAroney said in an interview with gymnastics podcast Gymcastic released Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, that she's stepping away from competition but not "retiring" from the sport. "Fierce Five" teammate Kyla Ross announced her retirement from elite competition on Monday. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File) 

At a pre-Olympics press conference in Pyeongchang on Friday, Larry Probst, chairman of the USOC, apologized to the victims - "the Olympic system failed you'' - and was quick to defend the absent Blackmun. "He has served the USOC with distinction since he rejoined the organization in 2010. "We think that he did what he was supposed to do, and he did the right thing at every turn.''

Other board members paraded out to support the CEO. "To this point Scott has done a phenomenal job,'' Angela Ruggiero said.

None of the heads of Team USA governing bodies - from archery to water polo, skiing to soccer, ice hockey to field hockey - have publicly commented for or against Blackmun.

Some inside and outside the Olympic movement have called for Blackmun to step down. Eight former Olympians and several athletes' rights advocates sent a lengthy memo to a Congressional committee outlining the serious mistakes in judgment they believed Blackmun made. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a gold-medalist swimmer, said: "He does not deserve to lead our Olympic team.''

Two U.S. senators, one from each party, issued a joint statement following a Wall Street Journal report that Blackmun was informed about the accusations about Nassar in 2015, a year before USOC officials have claimed they first knew of the man and the allegations. "If these reports are true, this goes far beyond negligence and raises serious questions of culpability at USOC, in which the most appropriate action would be for Scott Blackmun to resign.''

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, according to The New York Times, said that if Blackmun did nothing for a year after learning about the allegations of widespread sexual abuse, then he should step down. The Times reported that the two Colorado senators, Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner, stated through their staffs that "anyone who knew about the Nassar accusations and did nothing must step down.''

The Times article last week was headlined: "Scott Blackmun gets to keep his job? Really?''

Critics of Blackmun have complained that he was slow to react to allegations since he became CEO in 2010 and didn't take proper action against governing bodies. USOC officials assert that the organization didn't know "until the accusations became public from law enforcement'' and didn't have sufficient authority under the Congressional "Amateur Sports Act of 1978,'' signed by President Jimmy Carter, to pursue or punish sexual abuse offenders in the myriad sports under its umbrella.

Blackmun was quick to respond in an open letter (but not a press conference) at the end of one of Nassar's sentencings, of 40 to 165 years in prison. He apologized to the women and girls abused by the ex-team doctor. "The Olympic family is among those that have failed you.

"The purpose of this message is to tell all of Nassar's victims and survivors, directly, how incredibly sorry we are. ... We are sorry for the pain caused by this terrible man, and sorry that you weren't afforded a safe opportunity to pursue your sports dreams.''

Blackmun, who had ordered the CEO of USA Gymnastics to resign 10 months ago, said days ago the gymnastics board would have to resign, or the organization would face decertification by the USOC. The entire board did resign.

Blackmun also announced in his letter that the USOC would appoint an "independent third party to'' investigate "how an abuse of this proportion could have gone so undetected for so long. We need to know when were complains were brought forward and to who.''

The USOC hired a Boston law firm to conduct the investigation.

One of the objections lodged against Blackmun was neither he nor any USOC representatives was in court as the women spoke. The USOC told The Gazette that because of Blackmun's impending surgery he was not permitted by a doctor to attend. Another organization official said in "hindsight it was a mistake for us not to be there.''

However, there has been a trail of errors, oversights, miscalculations and blunders committed by Blackmun, his executives and the board of directors during his second tenure with the USOC. The former prominent attorney with two Denver law firms and the COO of the Anschutz Entertainment Group served the USOC as general counsel in 1999, director of sports the next year and interim CEO in 2001.

He was rehired to the top position on a "permanent'' basis in 2010.

Someone who has known Blackmun for a long time, and requested anonymity, said that the USOC CEO "is not a (NFL commissioner) Roger Goodell type leader. He's much more understated.'' Another associate who asked not be named said that Blackmun "has run the USOC as corporate business (it's a nonprofit organization) and delegated a lot of authority. He's tried from the beginning to improve the communication and concentrate on the athletes. This is very unfortunate because he's a good man and a great CEO.''

After reading hundreds of pages of documents (many provided by the USOC) detailing USOC board meetings the past eight years, correspondence between Blackmun and sports governing body executives, replies to congressional inquiries and overviews of the USOC-created organization to handle sexual harassment and abuse, the Denver-headquartered U.S. Center for SafeSport, I've learned how convoluted, complicated, complex and challenging the USOC and its relationship with, and control over, the sports governing bodies is.

It really is like herding cats.

And it's a mess.

Attempting to obtain agreements that suit the operations of snowboarding and softball, boxing and figure skating and dozens of other sports is an impossible task the USOC confronts daily.

Little did James Sullivan and William Sloane realize when they formed a committee to organize U.S. participation in the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896. Fourteen athletes competed in three sports in Athens.

The USOC has been forced to endure scandal in track and field (performance-enhancing drugs), skating (Harding-Kerrigan), host city (the bribing of delegates), skiing (professionalism), swimming (athletes' conduct in Rio, and sexual abuse charges), taekwondo (sexual abuse), hockey (team conduct in Japan), speedskating (sexual abuse) and, now, the most scandalous and far-reaching - in gymnastics.

Where does this go - in regard to USA Gymnastics, the USOC and Scott Blackmun?

The late senator Howard Baker distinctly asked in 1973: "What did the president know, and when did he know it?''

Of Blackmun, it should be added: "And how did he react after he knew?''

This massive sexual abuse matter threatens the future of the USOC. But the organization is not alone.

In the wake of the disturbing and devastating Nassar disclosures, the Michigan State president and the school's athletic director have resigned, and there will be investigations by the school and the NCAA; the entire USA Gymnastic board of directors have been outsted, 10 months after the chief executive was forced to resign; members of both Houses of Congress have called for an investigation involving executives and enablers in gymnastics, and Blackmun initiated an independent investigation that will include an investigation of him.

Alexandra "Aly'' Raisman, who won six medals (three golds) at the 2012 and '16 Summer Olympics, was one of the gymnasts who spoke eloquently before the Nassar sentencing. During and afterward, Raisman severely rebuked USA Gymnastics and the USOC for not shielding the athletes from harm's way. Both associations "have been very quick to capitalize and celebrate my success. But did they reach out when I came forward? No.''

So, what did Blackmun know, and when did he know it, and what was his response when he knew?

Blackmun may have known something evil and possibly criminal was occurring in gymnastics as long ago as 1999 when, as general counsel, he was one of three USOC executives to receive a letter from former USA Gymnastics CEO Bob Colarossi cautioning them about sports governing bodies "that lack basic sex abuses preventative measures,'' according to an article that appeared in The Washington Post in March 2016. "This is not an issue that can be wished away,'' Colarossi wrote 18 years ago. "The USOC can either position itself as a leader in the protection of young athletes, or it can wait until it is forced to deal with the problem under more difficult circumstances.''

Colarossi's alarming warning became stark reality.

After Blackmun and then USA Gymnastics counsel Jack Swarbrick (now Notre Dame athletic director) conferred that year, Colarossi said, Swarbrick recommended that the gymnastic organization not suspend individuals charged with a felony, but wait until after a conviction.

The Orange County Register reported Aug. 5, 2016, that despite accusations by gymnasts of sexual abuses by coaches, Blackmun said at a press conference: "We obviously learned about this story yesterday like everybody else. We do not intend to investigate. We couldn't possibly investigate allegations of misconduct in 47 different (national governing bodies). We do have what I think is a pretty state-of-the-art policy regarding abuse and misconduct, not just sexual misconduct, so we will watch those proceedings.''

Pretty safe? State-of-the-art?

On Dec. 22, 2017, Eddie Pells, of the Associated Press, wrote that Blackmun stated in a "letter to key administrators in the U.S. Olympic movement that he was not aware of the Larry Nassar's sex-abuse allegations before law enforcement got involved, and that he had no knowledge of a settlement between USA Gymnastics and 2012 Olympic champion McKayla Maroney.''

Maroney's lawyer, John Manly, called the letter "repugnant" and said: "If you're the USOC and you're really committed to this, what you should do is get on the phone to the USA (Gymnastics) board and say you're out, or we're decertifying you."

Despite Blackmun's statement about what he didn't know and when, regarding USA Gymnastics, which is headquartered in Indianapolis, The Indianapolis Star began publishing stories in August 2016 about USA Gymnastics abuses, and, later, the Nassar allegations.

Blackmun should have known for years there were issues of abuse. He made mistakes, missteps and misstatements all along the way. Blackmun missed.

In 2010, Blackmun did strongly campaign with the USOC of directors for the creation of an independent "SafeSport'' organization to oversee harassment, bullying and sexual abuse in the 47 governing bodies. In 25 of the following 27 board meetings "SafeSport'' was discussed, and a working task force was selected to formulate a program and its goals. In what would become an eventual bizarre twist, one of the prominent members of the group was Steve Penny, who represented USA Gymnastics. He was prominently entangled in the gymnastics probe years later - and had to resign. Because of drawn-out discussions, push-back from the governing bodies, lack of funding from outside corporate sponsors and the issues of dealing with a board and a task force, and changes and alterations to the objectives and makeup of SafeSport, the new U.S. Center for SafeSport didn't open until March 23, 2017, seven years after Blackmun proposed its establishment. Perhaps if the concept hadn't moved so syrupy slow, some of Nassar's actions could have been prevented.

USOC officials Blackmun have said conflicting things about when officials first learned about Nassar. One declaration pointed to the publication of the Indianapolis Star investigative series "Out of Balance'' in March 2016.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Penny reached out to Blackmun the previous year in regard to the alarming accusations.

"The U.S. Olympic Committee didn't intervene in USA Gymnastics' handling of sexual-abuse allegations against longtime national team doctor in 2015, even after USA Gymnastics' (CEO Penny) told two top USOC executives that an internal investigation had uncovered possible criminal behaviors by the doctor against Olympic athletes,'' the newspaper story stated. "The communications - a July 2015 phone call and September 2015 emails described to The Wall Street Journal by people familiar with the matter - shed new light on the Olympic Committee's knowledge'' of the scandal.

The story claims that Penny personally warned Blackmun in July, then emailed the USOC chief of security, Larry Buendorf, with more specific, and graphic information, about the allegations of three gymnasts.

The Gazette talked by phone with a USOC executive and a member of the board of directors, but both declined to talk on the record in answering any questions.

Buendorf, formerly of the U.S. Secret Service, is a Colorado Springs resident and has been chief of security since 1993. The 80-year Buendorf, who is in South Korea with Team USA, will be retiring after the Games. Phone calls to Buendorf by The Gazette have not been returned.

The Boston law firm of Ropes & Gray, founded in 1865, will investigate. One of its former partners was Elliott Richardson, U.S. Attorney General in 1973. He was named to the post to administer the Watergate investigation. He was ordered by President Nixon to fire special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Instead, he resigned in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre.''

Was there a "cover-up'' at USA Gymnastics and in the USOC? Is there a "smoking gun'' in "Gymgate?''

Will the young women gymnasts who were violated receive justice? And how will this investigation affect the USOC, the Olympic movement and Scott Blackmun?

What is the truth?

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