Steps to a Compliance Program for Sports Organizations


In one of the recent developments in the sex-abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics, two star gymnasts testified in March before the Senate Judiciary Committee and outlined the sexual abuse they said they had suffered under the hands of Dr. Larry Nassar, longtime team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Dr. Nassar is in jail facing multiple state and federal charges. USA Gymnastics President Steve Penny, who resigned in the aftermath of the sex-abuse scandal, is a co-defendant in a civil lawsuit filed by one of the gymnasts.

Scandals are not new to sports but this one has drawn national outrage because it involves underage athletes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, has introduced a bill with 15 co-sponsors that would make it mandatory for national governing bodies of Olympic sports to report sexual abuse to the police. It would be a federal crime not to report such abuse.

Those of us who follow compliance issues in sports are struck at the narrow focus of this bill. Why limit it to sexual abuse? Sadly, abuse in gymnastics, alone, comes in many forms. “It is a sport in which screaming insults at children is considered an accepted motivational technique, in which competing with severe injuries is the norm, in which discouraging athletes from eating is common practice and in which abuse, broadly defined, is standard,” wrote Jennifer Sey, the 1986 national champion, in a recent column for the New York Times.

Perhaps the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), under whose umbrella fall the national governing bodies of 31 Olympic summer sports and eight Olympic winter sports, will take a vigorous role in educating its affiliated bodies on broader forms of abuse and the variety of compliance matters. It is likely that at least some governing bodies may be unsure how to proceed in this new climate of heightened scrutiny. This is how the USOC could render useful service:

  • Offer education and training to inform leaders of the governing bodies on the integrity/compliance risks inherent in and integral to sports organizations.

  • Develop guidelines/standards for governing bodies interested in developing a preventive program based on the U.S. Sentencing Commission Guidelines for Organizations. These guidelines were established in 1992 and have served as a model for many organizations in the public and private sector.

  • For those governing bodies with limited resources, or too small to develop and implement programs on their own, the USOC could develop a shared services program, offering various compliance-related services on a piecemeal basis. These services could include a hotline for anonymous reporting of incidents of wrongdoing, performing a risk analysis, and appointing an integrity/compliance officer to oversee the program and to conduct unbiased investigations.

Sports leaders who understand the internal politics of their organizations know only too well why new perspectives and new ways won’t work. But the public – and regulators – don’t care; they simply want the problems addressed and their patience is wearing thin.


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