After a high-profile scandal, USA Gymnastics now has to rebuild its board as well as trust in its organization. Doubling down on transparency, one governance professional says, can help get a scandal-damaged organization back on its feet.
Following the high-profile trial of Larry Nassar, a physician for the U.S. gymnastics team who was convicted last month of sexually abusing more than 150 young women, the association representing the gymnastics community is starting over with a new board.
On January 22, two days before Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, USA Gymnastics announced the resignation of three members of its executive board. “We believe this step will allow us to more effectively move forward in implementing change within our organization,” the association said in a statement.
“If there was ever a time to over-communicate, this is that time.”
However, in a January 25 letter [PDF], Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, demanded that USA Gymnastics go further if it wished to preserve its status as a governing body with authority over the sport. First on Blackmun’s list: all current board members of USA Gymnastics must resign.
On January 31, the association announced that it had complied with USOC’s request. “USA Gymnastics embraces not only the changes necessary as called for by the USOC and the Deborah Daniels report [on protecting young athletes, commissioned after abuse stories became public], but we also will hold the organization to the highest standards of care and safety in further developing a culture of empowerment for our athletes and members,” it said in a statement.
Blackmun’s letter includes guidelines about the process for seating interim and regular board members—and also requests that a “USOC-designated liaison” be invited to board meetings in order to help ensure that it addresses eliminating cases of abuse in the sport.
For any association facing a governance crisis, transparency about how the new board will go about its business is essential, said John Barnes, CEO of Barnes Association Consultants. “The replacements on the board of directors need to be seen as instantly credible and instantly trusted by members, stakeholders, the public, and public policymakers,” he said. “The process for selecting the new board members needs to be transparent and shared with all interested parties.”
The USOC also requested that all USA Gymnastics staff and board members undergo training on ethics and appropriate handling of sexual abuse claims. Such actions, Barnes says, are important not just in themselves but for making the public aware how engaged an association is with the problem.
“Communication needs to be constant and address every potential question anyone might have regarding the new leadership for the organization and the process used to identify the new leadership,” he said. “If there was ever a time to over-communicate, this is that time.”
“The institution has been severely damaged and it will take a very long time to heal the wounds,” he added. “The first step in the healing process is to welcome the scrutiny of the organization at this challenging time.”
Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor for Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives.