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The old joke in the now-professional world of the Olympic Games is that the last amateurs left in Olympic sports are the people running them.
Never have we seen more scrutiny of that leadership, and the system it runs, than in recent months in the midst of the horrifying sex abuse scandals in USA Gymnastics, USA Taekwondo and USA Swimming. A highly anticipated congressional hearing Wednesday morning is scheduled to delve further into those scandals.
If the darkest days in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement have revealed anything, it's that even as U.S. sports fans continue to profess their devotion to the nation's Olympic athletes, most know next to nothing about the system that produces them.
It's certainly not the NFL or the NBA — not even close. It's more Mom and Pop than it is Madison Avenue. Volunteers still call many of the shots. It's diffuse and far flung, populated by tiny sports outposts with small staffs and minuscule budgets located in places like Lake Placid, N.Y., Lexington, Ky., Park City, Utah, and Colorado Springs.
These organizations are known by an unusual acronym that has been a part of our sports lexicon for years, but particularly noticeable over these last few, horrendous months: NGB.
"Who came up with that title?" Max Cobb, president and CEO of U.S. Biathlon, asked with a laugh. "We don't even have the word sports in it."
President Jimmy Carter gave us that acronym when he signed the Amateur Sports Act in 1978, creating what we know as today's U.S. Olympic movement. Sen. Ted Stevens reaffirmed it in 1998 when the act was revised.
NGB stands for National Governing Body, of which there are 49, including USA Gymnastics. Even the big ones responsible for the bulk of U.S. medals at the Summer and Winter Olympics, like those NGBs running gymnastics, swimming, skiing, track and field, basketball and figure skating, are not large by the standards of our professional leagues.
A little perspective:
In 2016, USA Gymnastics' revenue was $34.48 million. The NBA's was close to $8 billion.
Steve Penny, the now-departed USA Gymnastics CEO, made $670,729 in 2016 — a fortune in the NGB world. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver makes an estimated $10 million a year.
This in no way should explain or excuse USA Gymnastics' stunningly horrible reaction to the Larry Nassar scandal. Someone's salary should have nothing to do with his or her ability to stop the abuse of young athletes.
But there is no denying the fact that U.S. Olympic sports rarely attract the nation's best and brightest sports minds as their leaders.
"They start as swimming mothers or fathers and the next thing they know, they're the NGB president," said Harvey Schiller, the former U.S. Olympic Committee executive director who served as president of Turner Sports and chairman and CEO of YankeeNets, among other sports leadership roles.
"In some cases, these people just don't have much knowledge about running a sport. It's a continuing challenge and it's hard for a lot of these NGBs to get the right people. Getting someone to leave a major job in major cities like New York or Los Angeles isn't easy. Often the volunteer leadership on the NGB doesn't have the money to hire the best people."
Olympic gold medalist Donna de Varona has devoted much of her life to the U.S. Olympic effort, but she too knows that the money is just not there for even the most solvent NGBs to lure sports executives away from higher paying jobs.
"Let's face it, you're just not going to get an Adam Silver," she said.
Then, when an issue as devastating as the sex abuse scandal hits, while the expectation would be that it would be handled expertly, there's often not the skill set, resources or supporting cast to react the way one of our professional leagues would — leagues that also often have trouble getting things right themselves.
"The challenge is when something comes up as bad as Nassar, how do they react to it?" Schiller said. "Look at what the NFL is dealing with with head injuries and how difficult that is to figure out and solve. That's the NFL with millions of dollars at their disposal. The luge and bobsled NGBs, for instance, also have those same issues, but how do they begin to deal with it with such limited resources?"
Cobb's biathlon headquarters in New Gloucester, Maine, is about as small as a sports organization can get.
"The paid staff is me and just over one full-time equivalent divided among three part-time people," he said.
When something bad happens, Cobb said, "We're a garden hose against a skyscraper fire."
Each NGB is part paid staff, part volunteer. Each has a volunteer board to which the paid staff must answer. Schiller said that when he was the volunteer president of USA Team Handball for more than four years until February 2018, the paid CEO "wouldn't do anything publicly without talking to me."
Perhaps Congress someday will examine the structure of the U.S. Olympic movement in the midst of these historic scandals, but, as of now, the current setup is here to stay.
"If we didn't have volunteers timing on the pool deck and working at the track meets way down at the local level, we wouldn't have Olympic sports in America," de Varona said. "What are we going to do, go to a professional system like the Russians? No, we're not. The passion of the volunteers and the parents is what fuels the U.S. Olympic effort."
But the Nassar scandal has rocked the Olympic world to its core, and NGBs are rightly being examined as never before. While it will be the leaders of several of those NGBs sitting before Congress Wednesday morning, the structure of their organizations will also be on display for all the world to see.
"Not that long ago, there were some NGBs that were run out of a chief executive's home and in the hands of one individual and a board of directors without a plan," said former USOC spokesman Mike Moran.
"It's a remarkably inefficient system at times, but when it was crafted in 1978, it seemed to be the correct one for the times — which have changed dramatically."
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