Scott Blackmun designed the groundwork for a superior and safer American Olympic Movement, but the past, full of horrors, overtook him.
He failed, along with dozens of others, to do enough to stop Larry Nassar, a doctor who preyed on young gymnasts. Nassar exposed the United States Olympic Committee’s troubling weakness. The organization lacked the power, and the will, to protect its athletes, leaving dozens of young women vulnerable to a beast.
Blackmun saw the weakness in the USOC and its National Governing Bodies. He knew the USOC needed to offer athletes a simple yet powerful avenue to expose abusers. Blackmun’s foresight led to the 2017 creation of Denver-based SafeSport, which seeks to find the creeps.
SafeSport, which operates independently of the USOC, will lead to better tomorrows. I’m convinced of that. A young athlete can go to SafeSport’s website, click on a link and quickly get in touch with motivated investigators from a powerful organization. SafeSport will stop future Larry Nassars.
But Blackmun oversaw an organization that failed to respond quickly enough or strongly enough to Nassar and other villains. Part of this failure can be explained by restrictions on Blackmun’s role as head of the USOC.
Blackmun was not given powers like those offered to Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL. Goodell can act swiftly and fiercely, as quarterback Tom Brady discovered after footballs were deflated, violating NFL rules, before a playoff game. Goodell, granted great powers, slapped Brady with a four-game suspension. Blackmun had no such sweeping powers.
And Blackmun’s nature played a role, too. He admires basketball genius John Wooden and follows his hero’s calm, measured response to problems. He listens. He considers all the options. He’s not one to make a big show. He dislikes the spotlight. He asked me, more than once, to minimize his role.
He was the right man to lead the USOC to more medals and more stability. He was not the right man to take on the monster who is Larry Nassar. He should have spoken loudly. He should have been more open to exposing, and humiliating, the leaders of USA Gymnastics for their many failures.
I talked at length with Blackmun a few times. He took all questions, and he usually declined to indulge in lawyer-speak, even though he has a law degree from Stanford.
He savored his job. In late 2009, Blackmun was enjoying a comfortable life as COO and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group when he was asked to apply for the vacant USOC CEO position.
He had every reason to say no. He served as the USOC’s interim CEO for 11 months in 2001. He wanted the interim removed from his title, but failed to win a vote from the USOC board. He was sitting in a hotel room in Chicago when he heard about the voting results in an afternoon phone call from a reporter. Blackmun didn’t hear from the board until the next morning.
Despite the painful exit, he was intrigued by the idea of returning to the USOC. He wanted to again be part of America’s Olympic Movement, wanted to participate in the excitement, wanted to tackle an immense and complicated challenge. The USOC had raced through six CEOs in eight years.
In 2001, the USOC board wanted to be part of virtually every decision, down to the blazers worn by athletes at Opening Ceremonies. After Blackmun’s return in 2010, the USOC narrowed its focus.
“Sustained competitive excellence at the Olympic and Paralympic games,” Blackmun told me in 2013.
His laser focus worked, in a way. Americans rolled to 103 medals at the 2012 London Games and 121 at the 2016 Rio Games.
His laser focus led to trouble, too. Blackmun, a good man, failed to do enough to expose Nassar, a bad man. This failure will be part of Blackmun’s legacy.
But so will SafeSport. He set up a better future before being taken down by an ugly past.