What will the EOPAAA do that five Congressional hearings in 2003 did not?

One of the great things about historical research is the prospect of placing into context the impact a present day event has when seen through the lens of history.

Such is the case when evaluating what impact the Empowering Olympic and Paralympic Amateur Athletes Act (EOPAAA) could have not only on Olympic sport, but also on college athletics as well. It is a topic about which I last wrote on December 9, 2020 after watching a 60 Minutes story on eliminating college sports.

The EOPAAA became law when signed by the President on October 30, 2020. Last week, Representative Greg Walden (R-OR) appointed four members to the 16-person commission. It was one of his final official acts as January 2, 2021 marked Rep. Walden’s last day in office. Many of the Commission’s goals, as summarized in the news release linked above, involve analyzing the current state of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s (USOPC) goals, functions, and structure (the USOC was renamed the USOPC in June 2019).

This is NOT a new discussion. Congress created the USOC in 1978 with the passage of the Amateur Sports Act (the late Representative Ted Stevens’ name was added to the legislation with a revision in 1998, thereby becoming the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act). Since that time, it has been the topic of reforming the USOC has been the focus of several Congressional inquiries.

A series of ethics scandals confronted the USOC from 2002-03. President Sandra Baldwin resigned in May 2002 after admitting she falsified her resume. Her replacement, Marty Mankamyer, resigned in February 2003 after it was revealed she profited from the sale of property to USOC CEO Lloyd Ward, who resigned in March 2003 amid allegations of improper business dealings. Five members of the USOC ethics panel resigned in one week alone. This led to unnecessary publicity and Congressional hearings.

Tim Layden of Sports Illustrated wrote in the February 17, 2003 magazine, the USOC was “in a neck-and-neck race with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Cincinnati Bengals to determine the worst-run organization in sports.” (Let’s just ignore the idea Layden had at the time of making Rudy Giuliani the Olympic Czar.)

Layden’s first suggestion was to start over and blow up the structure which is what happened, sort of. A leaner USOC emerged with a new board structure of just 16 individuals, only three of whom were appointed from the Athletes’ Advisory Council, and including 4 ex-officio members: the CEO and the three U.S. representatives to the IOC. In December 2020, the USOPC announced a new 19-person board structure with “enhanced” athlete voice. While it has not grown to the pre-2003 level of 120(!) board members, the USOPC is creeping back up.

Also in 2003, the late Senator John McCain (R-AZ) led an effort to pass S. 1404, the United States Olympic Committee Reform Act, in the 108th Congress (2003-04). This was the last time Congress really conducted an “investigation” into the USOC. S. 1404 passed the Senate, but despite three different sister bills in the House (H.R. 3144, H.R. 3330, H.R. 3825), the United States Olympic Committee Reform Act never made it to President George W. Bush’s desk.

Congress convened five hearings about the USOC during this time:

  • State of the USOC, Senate Commerce Committee, January 28, 2003

  • U.S.Olympic Committee Reform, Senate Commerce Committee, February 13, 2003

  • Does the USOC’s Organizational Structure Impede Its Mission, House Energy and Commerce Committee, March 19, 2003

  • Legislative Efforts to Reform the U.S.Olympic Committee, House Energy and Commerce Committee, July 16, 2003

  • U.S.Olympic Committee Reform Act of 2003, Senate Commerce Committee, July 28, 2003

None of these efforts examined what the EOPAAA really needs to endeavor to undertake, and that is a thoughtful reevaluation of how athletes ascend to become Olympic champions, thereby achieving “sustained competitive excellence and well-being” (as the USOPC mission states). The EOPAAA must examine structural challenges needed in how sport is delivered in the United States - from community based recreation to elite international competition. This will require a macro look at sport in the United States, not one just narrowly focused on how the USOPC.

Nowhere else in the world does a country have such a fragmented sport delivery system where an elite athlete receives instruction from so many different coaches (community recreation, junior high, high school, travel clubs, college, and national governing bodies). The UK has a Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. Similarly, Sport Canada oversees sport programs focused on providing Canadians with access to sport as part of a healthy and active lifestyle, and help high performance athletes participate and succeed in competitions. The United States has the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition.

The PCSFN does not concern itself with sport development in the way the other organizations do. It does not interact with the NCAA or the National Federation of High Schools or NGBs. These institutions should work collaboratively rather than independently.

Consider the USOPC’s own figures for its Pathway Project, a collaboration among the USOPC, NGBs and the NCAA designed to help advocate for additional training for these athletes without violating NCAA rules (NCAA Bylaw was adopted in July 2020 to aid in this). Just 234 identified “Elite Athletes” were enrolled in 71 unique universities in 2020. Of those, zero athletes were identified in the following Olympic sports: baseball, basketball, biathlon, equestrian, golf, soccer, and tennis, underscoring how little the USOPC relies on college athletics to develop elite competition in those sports. In contrast, the sports with the highest concentration of NCAA “Elite Athletes” were track and field (22), swimming (17), and diving (16). 

Since March 2020, NCAA Division I schools have eliminated 8 men’s swimming and diving programs, 7 men’s indoor track and field programs, 6 women’s swimming and diving programs, and 3 men’s outdoor track and field programs. Zero women’s track and field programs have been cut. The days of college athletics paying for the development of Olympic athletes may be gone whenever the pandemic leaves.

One would think more outrage would exist that the sports with the highest concentration of “Elite Athletes” are among those being eliminated the most (only golf and tennis have endured more eliminations than track and swimming). Meanwhile, college athletics’ cash cow, football, has seen zero teams eliminated at the Division I level since March.

The Olympic movement and college athletics look largely similar to one another in structure. Power is controlled by a handful of extremely well-compensated executives who set policies. Athletes have little voice, though the USOPC’s recent stance on Olympic protests is a step toward giving athletes more freedom of expression.

I said it in my December 9 post but will say it again, college athletics does not need Olympic sports, but, as currently structured, Olympic sports need college athletics. Post-pandemic college athletics will look very different than it did two years ago. Olympic sports will continue to be pushed the margin as athletic departments focus on revenue-generating football and men’s basketball. The EOPAAA’s chief task should be to recognize this, and figure out how to proceed, potentially without university athletic departments subsidizing athlete development.