By Jim Holt
Dear colleagues and friends,
The turmoil in which USA Gymnastics is currently embroiled is not exclusively the ongoing controversies stemming from sexual abuse. It is a result of a lack of true leadership and systemic failure as a consequence of historic actions based on flawed premises.
Leadership, ultimately, reveals character. A leader does not parse the words of an Indiana statute or wait five weeks for the results of an internal investigation or attempt to stonewall a Georgia judge. Going forward, USAG must insist on a zero-tolerance policy and immediate reporting to legal authorities when receiving reports of abuse.
In their times of crises, neither Abraham Lincoln nor Harry Truman needed to hire a public relations firm in order to respond; leadership understands that “the buck stops here.”
Winston Churchill put it thusly: “It is no use saying, we’re doing our best. You have got to succeed in doing what’s necessary.”
USAG should appoint (and publicize) an independent child-advocate (ombudsman) where complaints can be registered without the possible threat of retaliation on the part of the organization.
It would, however, be a great mistake to suggest that this is simply the failure of specific individuals. The real problems lay in USA Gymnastics’ structure, its concept of governance, and what the organization perceives as its core business function.
The Board of Directors currently totals just 23 positions. It is critical that our Board numbers be increased and that ALL stakeholders regain a place and voice at the table.
A brief bit of history: The United States Gymnastics Federation (the legal name, USAG became the “doing business as” label about 25 years ago) was formed in the early 1960s and conceptually broadly mirrored the principles of America’s Founding Fathers. Employees (“the office”) were charged with carrying out the policy directives of the Board of Directors, a diverse group of stakeholders including every organization with ties to the sport, and directly elected members representing the disciplines within gymnastics’ umbrella (MAG, WAG, Rhythmic, et al.). Twenty years ago, USAG's Board met twice a year (instead of the current once), consisted of 50-plus members and featured an Executive Committee of between 15-20. In essence, the Board was a duplication of Congress, and the EC was akin to the Senate.
In the mid-1990s a groundswell of external pressure arose throughout the Olympic movement advocating transformation of governing models from (in our case) federated and virtually bi-cameral to a “Corporate/Business” model.
The late Lance Crowley and I (twice elected National Membership Director for Men, 1992-2000) trenchantly fought against USAG adoption of centralization. My primary argument opposing the truncation of the Board was that a) there was zero evidence that indicated that the original model wasn’t working well or was somehow flawed, and b) philosophically I was (and am) opposed to centralization of decision-making and consolidation of power. Lord Acton’s maxim “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” was and remains an operating principle of how organizations and societies decay and collapse.
Regrettably, shortly after I left the Board (term limited), USAG forced a reduction of voting positions and reconstituted itself into the form which we “enjoy” today.
The oft-cited mantra of USA Gymnastics is "We are the National Governing body of gymnastics.” The emphasis of USAG toward its membership is primarily about (members) adhering to and following “rules, regulations, directives, etc.” If I could convince people of one thing it would be this: “The office is supposed to work for you, NOT the other way around.”
There are many places where the organization simply has no real business interfering with otherwise perfectly functioning processes.
1. Selection committees for National Teams
Results of athletic competitions should be decided on the field of play, not in conference rooms. Yes, competitive success is a priority, but the success of American women gymnasts in international competition over the last 20 years is not the result of the manipulations of some selection committee. It is the result of the inherent strengths of the U.S. as a country, and the collective resources of the gym club industry.
2. Regional congresses
For many years each region organized, promoted and successfully hosted mini-Congresses. There is no reason for this to be consolidated (other than the urge for control and opportunities to chase after revenue which would otherwise remain local).
3. Bringing regional/state bank accounts “in house”
As I argued with one State Director a number of years ago, ”it’s your money generated by your efforts; the office in Indianapolis neither contributes to it, nor has any real sanction to force compliance. …tell them “no thanks.”
The United States Gymnastics Federation was formed and intended to SERVE its membership.
Jessica Howard recalls “Board meetings seemed to revolve around two things: money and medals.” USA Gymnastics authorities believe that the purpose of the business is to organize national teams and international competition. They seem to think of the membership as taxable sources of revenue, not customers to be treated with respect and consideration.
Make no mistake, medals are not the result of some arcane selection process. The financial success of USA Gymnastics is not because of some salesman’s fast talking legerdemain. They are the by-products of the edifice of excellence that’s been exactingly constructed by coaches and gymnasts throughout the country over a period of many years.
The face of the sport is and always will be the gymnast in the gym or on the competition floor, not some person in a suit. We must reform the organization and reconstitute ourselves in a manner appropriate to its real purpose. USAG must become member-centric, must think first of how to best meet the needs of its membership and do so in a cost-effective and personable manner. Gym owners must be serviced, not taxed, and children must be protected.
Don’t we want our efforts and the organization to reflect the best within us? What would our founders, Frank Bare, Hal Frey, Erna Wachtel, Glenn Sundby and the others tell us if they could advise us today? Perhaps they’d counsel us: “Winning is the by-product of doing everything else well.”
Jim Holt is a former USAG Board member and is widely recognized internationally for his passion for and commitment to the development of gymnastics worldwide. He is one of very few individuals to coach at 14 World Championships and is the only person in gymnastics history to represent seven different nations at that event (BAR, BOL, ECU, IND, IRI, NAM, YEM).