Military leadership for USOC

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on March 10, 2018. It can also be found online here.

Want to fix the USOC? Draft a general.

“Why is he sad?” my 6-year-old asked about the young man walking out of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s entrance, whose downward, despondent gaze was as identifiable as his “Team USA” backpack. We were next to USOC headquarters a few days ago, stopped at a red light. “It’s complicated,” I said over my shoulder, as her younger sister listened in.

The troubles weighing down that USOC employee could have come from several places: the shocking news that hundreds were abused in the USA Gymnastics system, the emerging awareness that similar violations were widespread in other sports, or the sudden resignation of USOC CEO Scott Blackmun, who officially stepped down last week for health concerns; others attribute his leaving to the recent scandals.

While the details of this mess would be inappropriate for my daughters, even they could grasp the right remedy for this crisis. It starts with proper leadership.

OK, I’m biased. Of course a military guy would suggest a retired senior officer to be the USOC’s CEO. But even if predictable, it’s also logical.

The USOC and U.S. military are nonpartisan, nonprofit organizations that represent America to the world, where members proudly wear the flag on their uniforms.

In addition to its global relationships, the USOC works with 47 governing bodies within the United States, as well as a roughly $300 million annual budget. Senior generals and admirals will have spent decades managing similar amounts of public money, and the alliance structure of modern wars means they’ll know how to navigate sprawling chains of command.

And, as with PyeongChang, the 2020 Tokyo Games and the 2022 Beijing Games are likely to face security threats and a geopolitical angle, another point that favors someone who’s navigated such waters.

The key USOC challenge now -a trust gap after the failure to protect athletes from abuse – is tailor-made for a retired senior military officer.

This loss of trust is poison that will distract today’s athletes, scare away potential sponsors, and even threaten the future, as the parents of athletically gifted children think twice about Olympic sports programs.

The only cure is to reinstate public confidence quickly, which is what makes a retired general or admiral such a unique candidate.

America trusts its military. When Americans were recently asked how confident they are about different parts of society, the military came out on top.

It ranked above scientists, educational leaders, religious leaders, media, elected officials, and business leaders. Seventy-nine percent of American adults have confidence the military will “act in the best interests of the public,” while business leaders sit at 41 percent.

The head-to-head comparison between the military and business is instructive, because traditionally the USOC CEO has come from the business community. In more ordinary times, that might be the right call. But not now. Right now, the only thing the USOC needs to sell is trust.

That trust is contingent, of course, on the next CEO’s ability to respond to the organization’s current crisis. The modern U.S. military has battled sexual assault and harassment since 1991’s Tailhook scandal. While the overall results have been unsatisfying, the changes have been real, the victim support programs substantial, and there has been progress. In facing this wicked problem, experience matters.

The even greater challenge is to deal with this problem while maintaining a commitment to performance. That will be critical in coming months, as the USOC is likely to be on the receiving end of serious congressional scrutiny – a process many generals and admirals have familiarity with.

There are several retired senior officers leading sports organizations, from Gen. Raymond Odierno’s chairmanship of USA Football, to Lt. Gen. Michelle Johnson’s work as a senior vice president with the National Basketball Association, to Gen. Martin Dempsey’s service as chairman of USA Basketball.

My little girls are fortunate to have a principal ballerina for a mother, who danced with one of the world’s top professional companies. Those genes may or may not give them an athletic boost, but, either way, like a lot of other parents, we’re watching closely the USOC’s next steps.

Right now, we’d feel more confident in a USOC run by a general that’s sworn an oath to protect America’s sons and daughters. Because they’ll uphold it, again.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

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