It’s the Culture, Stupid


About a year and a half ago USA Gymnastics (USAG) released Deborah Daniels’ report which called for a cultural shift in the National Governing Body (NGB). Ms. Daniels’ investigation was commissioned by USAG following widespread reports of allegations of sexual abuse by its team doctor, Larry Nassar. Ms. Daniels, managing partner of a prominent Indianapolis law firm and a former federal prosecutor, previously spent a significant portion of her professional career prosecuting child sexual offenders.

Just prior to the public release of Ms. Daniels’ report, the USAG Board of Directors unanimously accepted her recommendations and began developing a plan for implementation of those recommendations. In her report, Ms. Daniels notes that “USA Gymnastics needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions. USA Gymnastics needs to take action to ensure that the change in culture also is fully embraced by the clubs that host member coaches, instructors, and athletes.” Ms. Daniels went on to report, “the culture that needs to be adopted is that USA Gymnastics’ top priority is the safety and well-being of its athletes, not just their success on the field of play.”

In July 2018 USAG posted an update on its action taken following the Daniels’ report while stating that the organization “has been and continues to be focused on building a culture that encourages, empowers and supports athletes, and prioritizes athlete safety and well-being.” It went on to report that 86 percent of the recommendations in the Daniel report were either implemented or in process.

Since that update was released, news related to USAG has taken a turn for the worse: 1) more young athletes have come forward with accusations of molestation committed by Dr. Nassar; 2) USAG and the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) are facing civil litigation; 3) executives at USAG and the USOC have stepped down; and 4) USAG has filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy, among other developments.

In addition, a second investigative report has now been released, this one by the USOC which painted a damning picture of both the USOC and USAG. The law firm which conducted the review, Ropes & Gray, LLC, addresses in its 252-page report the institutional failures that enabled Dr. Nassar’s decades-long abuse of women and girls in his role as USAG team physician. The report makes clear that the USOC fostered an abusive culture. David Wharton, writer for the LA Times, reported that the Ropes & Gray investigation has provided new insight into the USOC’s role in the Nassar scandal, criticizing the organization for “participating in a culture that facilitated the crimes and willfully ignored warning signs.”

Dr. Nassar’s crimes began nearly three decades ago. Early reports of his wrongdoing were simply ignored by officials who heard of them. Even worse, there was no opportunity for the athletes to safely report their concerns without fear of retribution or retaliation.

While the Daniels’ report contains 70 specific recommendations for addressing the Nassar scandal, the Ropes & Gray investigation was commissioned to simply review the conduct which had transpired. Therefore, its report does not contain many, if any, specific recommendations for dealing with the scandal plaguing both USAG and the USOC. However, both studies conclude that the two institutions shared an abusive culture requiring significant change.

The USOC and USAG have supported the establishment of SafeSport, an organization “which seeks to create a healthy, supportive environment for all its participants.” However, SafeSport’s mandate is not sufficiently broad to respond to all areas of risk for the USOC and its NGBs. The culture of an organization encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of the organization. Both Deborah Daniels and the Ropes & Gray investigators state very clearly that the culture within these organizations has been the fundamental cause of the problem.

Similarly, a months’ long investigation was conducted earlier this year by independent investigators of the corrosive culture within the front office of the Dallas Mavericks. Sexual harassment and other improper conduct among employees in the team’s front office was the focus of the investigation. Under an agreement within the NBA, Mavericks’ team owner Mark Cuban agreed to pay $10 million to women’s leadership and domestic violations organizations. The Mavericks also hired several experienced female executives to fill leadership positions within the front office and to change the culture. In further response, the Commissioner of the NBA directed all-league teams to review the Mavericks’ investigators’ report and address matters within their organizations as appropriate.

n each of the above scenarios, outside investigators studying the scandals involving sexual harassment and abuse led to a common finding – the corrosive culture which was allowed to permeate the organization caused the problem. However, none made it clear that the best solution for ensuring such a culture does not develop is the actual implementation of an effective enterprise-wide compliance program within each organization. Building a culture of compliance, integrity, and/or ethics within any organization can be a daunting task. However, the roadmap for doing so has been there all along – the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines for Organizations. The Commission’s guidelines for effective compliance programs have three purposes, each designed to support a culture of integrity: 1) to help prevent the organizations from violating applicable laws and internal policies and procedures; 2) to detect violations when they do occur; and 3) to correct situations that violate laws or internal policies and procedures. Compliance programs work. Implementation of these programs will certainly help prevent the reoccurrence of the horrible situations that were allowed to develop at USAG and the USOC, where effective compliance programs were simply absent.


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