Scott Blackmun is stepping down as chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the latest official to fall under pressure from the Larry Nassar sex-abuse scandal.
Blackmun was highly regarded and viewed as a stabilizing force in an organization previously troubled by chaotic leadership. But criticism of the committee’s handling of the abuse scandal involving the national team doctor for gymnastics had led two U.S. senators and a group of about 30 former Olympians, athletes’ representatives and child-advocacy experts to call for Blackmun to resign.
Blackmun became chief executive in 2010 and in January disclosed that tests showed he had prostate cancer.
The senators called for Blackmun to leave his post after The Wall Street Journal reported that the committee did not intervene despite learning in 2015 from USA Gymnastics that gymnasts were victims of possible sexual misconduct by Nassar, a year before accusations became public in an investigation by The Indianapolis Star.
The committee has said it followed proper procedures and was told that authorities were being contacted.
But The New York Times in February identified at least 40 girls and women who said that Nassar molested them between July 2015, when he first fell under FBI scrutiny, and September 2016, when he was exposed by The Star.
In November, Nassar pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven girls, but at his sentencing hearing in January in Michigan, more than 150 girls and women described sexual abuse by him for years while they were under his care, either with the U.S. gymnastics teams, at private gyms or through his job at Michigan State. He was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes. He had already been sentenced to 60 years in federal prison for child pornography convictions.
In January, Blackmun called for the resignation of the entire board of USA Gymnastics in the wake of the Nassar scandal, and days later the members complied. The head of USA Gymnastics had resigned last March.
USA Gymnastics, which sets the sport’s rules and policies and selects the U.S. teams for the Olympics, has been widely derided for its handling of the sexual abuse scandal, but the USOC also has also come under scrutiny for its inability to hold the gymnastics federation accountable for its failures.
In his email demanding the resignation of the USA Gymnastics board, Blackmun wrote that the gymnastics federation needed “a categorically fresh start at the board level,” adding that “reform must start with an entirely new board.”
Blackmun did not attend the recent Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But Larry Probst, the chairman of the Olympic committee’s board, said at a news conference before the games that Blackmun would keep his job — for which he was paid $1 million in 2016 — until the organization had completed an independent investigation of its actions in the Nassar matter.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Probst attributed Blackmun’s resignation to his health, but the organization acknowledged the urgency of the scandal and outlined multiple reforms alongside the change in leadership. Those included increased funding for Nassar’s victims and a plan to re-examine the basic governance structure of U.S. Olympic sports.
Probst said Blackmun and the board agreed that the organization “needed a CEO who can work 24-7 as we navigate through this situation.”
Asked whether he felt it was appropriate for him to remain as chairman of the Olympic committee, Probst said, “I serve at the discretion of the board, so that is really a question for them to answer.” He added that he was confident that he and the current board members were “the appropriate group of people to lead the organization through these difficult times.”
Susanne Lyons, a former executive at Visa who has belonged to the committee’s board since 2010, will serve as acting chief executive until a permanent replacement is found, the organization said.
Lyons said she wanted the committee to re-evaluate its relationship with the national governing bodies of each sport and make sure it has “clear-cut authorization to intercede” when appropriate.
“I understand that may involve opening up the Amateur Sports Act,” she said in a phone interview, referring to the four-decade-old legislation that puts USOC in charge of amateur sports in the United States but also limits its power to interfere with the business of national sports federations.
Lyons said the process for finding a new chief executive had begun and would take four to six months.
The leadership of the Olympic committee learned that gymnasts had been abused by a top doctor at USA Gymnastics during the summer of 2015 but largely stayed on the sidelines because, the Olympic officials have said, they were deferring to law enforcement. Blackmun and Probst asked few questions of the USA Gymnastics leadership. Only last year did the Olympic committee’s board recommend that USA Gymnastics remove its president, Steve Penny.
Asked what lesson he could draw from the past two years, Probst said, “I don’t know that there is a particular lesson from the last two years.”