OP-ED: Sports Need Independent Oversight

by Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry
Rene A. Henry

If sports organizations, leagues and teams want to insure equal disciplinary justice when athletes, coaches and administrators behave badly they need to create independent committees to take this responsibility.

Sexual assault, rape, domestic violence, DUI and other violent and disreputable acts are becoming all too frequent by athletes and others in sports.  Or at least they are publicly known today and may have not been reported in past years.  Recent violence by National Football League players opened the door for the media and public to express concern. 

There was immediate outrage the way NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell initially handled the domestic violence incident involving Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens.  It exploded with subsequent stories involving Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, Greg Hardy of the Carolina Panthers and Ray McDonald of the San Francisco 49ers.  By comparison, the punishment meted out for use of marijuana, which is legal in two NFL cities, was much harsher than that for domestic violence. 

The only consistency the way national governing bodies of sports, professional sports franchises and college and universities are dealing with these issues is their consistent inconsistency. 

“The higher the level of the leagues, the lower the level of caring about right and wrong,” says Arthur Solomon, former journalist and PR consultant, whose career includes  restructuring, managing and playing key roles on national and international sports and non-sports programs. 

USA Swimming, for example, was quick to discipline multi-gold medalist Michael Phelps for six months for a DUI, which they should have done.  But it wasn’t until there was a mountain of bad media and Congressional and FBI investigations that the powers that be started to act regarding complaints of coaches sexually abusing young girl swimmers. 

The U.S. Olympic Committee has been conspicuously silent when it comes to such abuses by athletes, coaches and administrators in the various national governing bodies of sport.  Any oversight of the NGBs must be completely independent of any of the sports otherwise it will be politically controlled.

Commissioners of the NFL, MLB, NBA, MLS and NHL should welcome an independent organization that could investigate and make disciplinary decisions.  The commissioners have to please not only the owners who pay their salaries and continue their employment, but players and their agents, the union, coaches, fans and the media.

I applaud the World Tennis Association for its quick action in disciplining Shamil Tarpischev for the outrageous comments he made about Serena and Venus Williams.  The WTA fined him $25,000 and suspended him for one year.  Tarpischev is the head of the Russian Tennis Federation, captain of the Russian Davis Cup and Fed Cup teams and a member of the International Olympic Committee.  Organizations should follow the lead of the WTA in taking quick action when anyone makes bullying, sexist and racist comments.

The USOC is the one organization that could take a leadership role for all sports leagues and conferences to follow.  The NGBs should fund a completely independent committee under the USOC umbrella that would investigate and recommend disciplinary action.  It is critical that any oversight be completely independent of any sport otherwise there could be political control.  I believe it would be best for each professional league to have its own committee.  To be functional any committee should preferably have five representatives and I would recommend two athletes, a coach, an administrator and an individual from the general public.  The members should serve three-year terms with the first group having representatives serving one, two and three years so there is turnover. 

The committees need to have complete investigative access to all possible information and also be empowered to act quickly and expeditiously and not be subject to any appeal or legal action.  Conferences including the Big 10, Big XII, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC should have committees whose members have no ties with any of the schools in their respective conferences.

 Male athletes are not the only abusers.  Hope Solo, probably the best woman soccer goalie in the world today who led the USA to two Olympic gold medals, will stand trial for assaulting her sister and a 17-year-old nephew during a family fight.  The U.S. Soccer Federation just named her team captain for the CONCACAF competition and World Cup qualification.  Solo’s husband, Jerramy Stevens, was charged with domestic violence two years ago and the case was dropped.

Colleges are certainly inconsistent when it comes to disciplining its athletes.  Someone who can make a significant difference when it comes to winning may receive a slap on the wrist or be told there was no evidence to substantiate any charges while a third stringer may be expelled.  All too often lawyers and influential alumni will seek to get charges dismissed and pressure victims to withdraw charges.  Local police in some college towns have said they have collaborated with university officials to protect star athletes from being charged or prosecuted. 

The NCAA has repeatedly shown that it cannot move swiftly so that when penalties are handed down the perpetrators who committed the violations are long gone from campus and innocents pay for their crimes.  A committee independent of the school and funded by the conference is needed so victims can report abuses directly to this committee in addition to the college.  The NCAA should only be an information gathering agency and all disciplinary action be taken by the conferences committees.

Professional teams also have kept abuses quiet with pressure on local authorities and too often it works except in the case of the most serious crimes such as murder. 

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Rene A. Henry, a native of Charleston, WV,  has authored 10 books. He lives in Seattle, Washington and his experience in sports spans five decades.  He has been involved at all levels in college, recreational, international and Olympic sports and served as volunteer assistant to the president and on several committees of the U.S. Olympic Committee.


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