The issue of unity: USOC

The issue of unity: USOC

By Ben Fischer, Staff Writer



President Trump’s comments criticizing NFL players over not standing for the national anthem came at a particularly challenging time for the U.S. Olympic Committee: the weekend before its Team USA Media Summit, a three-day media availability that put top brass and 113 athletes in front of 400 journalists for extended interview sessions.

The event kicked off last Monday morning at the Grand Summit Hotel in Park City, Utah, with the USOC’s five top leaders taking questions. In the early morning hours before the opening press conference, USOC Chairman Larry Probst, CEO Scott Blackmun and chief external affairs officer Patrick Sandusky briefly planned their positioning via email. It was an easy call: reaffirm their athletes’ freedom to speak their mind on any issue.

Larry Probst, Scott Blackmun, Lisa Baird, Alan Ashley and Patrick Sandusky speak to the media.

Five minutes into the first meeting with reporters, Blackmun went even beyond that sentiment when ESPN’s Bonnie Ford asked him the question. Instead, in his own words, he offered a forceful repudiation of Trump: “I think the athletes you see protesting are protesting because they love their country, not because they don’t. So we fully support the right of our athletes and everybody else to express themselves.”

The USOC briefed every athlete at the summit on a range of probable questions, but the protest issue was not in the talking points, sources said. They felt any kind of top-down instructions could be problematic.

However, some inside the organization think the USOC’s exposure to the matter is lower than major league sports for two reasons: The International Olympic Committee has a strict rule against demonstrations of any kind on the podium during the Games themselves, taking the question of punishment out of the USOC’s hands. Also, Olympians only hear their national anthem after they’ve accomplished a seminal career goal, winning a gold medal, which most believe makes protest less likely.

— Ben Fischer