by Irvin Muchnick
The year is ending without disclosure of what happened in the departure of John Ruger, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s athlete ombudsman. This is a tangled story with important connections to the federal investigations of sexual abuse and cover-up in the national sport governing bodies (NGB’s) USA Swimming and U.S. Speedskating. We will be getting to them.
Some Olympic athletes say Ruger got the boot because he wasn’t advocating adequately for them. Others of our sources believe he performed decently in a conflicted job (with his salary paid by USOC even as he was being mandated to confront it under the Amateur Sports Act).
Regardless of how effective he was, there are dangling questions concerning Ruger’s sudden retirement this year, and whether his accompanying severance package was a “golden parachute” designed to keep him from speaking with full candor to federal investigators.
Now a new controversy has emerged – over the hiring process for Ruger’s successor, Kacie Wallace.
A group of dissident Olympic athletes, led by Monica Rowland (who competes in the modern pentathalon) and Victor Plata (a triathlete), has complained to the USOC that the Athletes’ Advisory Council (AAC) was not consulted in Wallace’s selection. The Sports Act specifies such consultation.
The AAC consists of a six-person Leadership Team and a larger General Body. The latter has one athlete and one alternate from each NGB, plus eight paralympic athletes and assorted other ex officio members and representatives. Interested athletes seem to have learned developments only via a memo from USOC chair Scott Blackmun and AACchair Sarah Konrad. The dissidents say it is not clear if only Konrad was involved, or one or two other members of the Leadership Team, or the entire Leadership Team, but the General Body clearly was an afterthought at best.
Public records of the ombudsperson job posting show that it pays between $154,528 and $198,000 annually.
Another point of contention is that the job description says the ombudsperson is tasked with advocating for “elite” athletes. The word “elite,” however, is not in the Sports Act. It’s easy to see how a truncated definition of the role could be used to argue that complaints of one sort or another are not in the ombudsperson’s jurisdiction.
And to get right down to it, it is especially easy to discern how, with the extra-statutory qualifier “elite,” a young, not-yet-elite athlete at the local club level who is, say, sexually abused, can be left without appropriate advocacy at the highest levels of the USOC.
The essential flaw of the Sports Act is the tension between the need to oversee local kid programs and the development of Olympians. Congress has authorized the USOC to sanction NGB’s, which in practice are more about money and international competitive urgency than they are about protecting youth athletes.
Contacted by email, assistant ombudsperson Sara Clark, who is running the office during the transition from Ruger to Wallace, told Concussion Inc., “The new athlete ombudsman has not started her employment yet. And I cannot comment” on our inquiry.
We also sent emails to the five (not six) listed members of the Athletes’ Advisory Council leadership team, and heard back from none of them. The link to the email of chair Konrad did not work.