Scott A. Blackmun ’82
Two Thousand and nine is a year that members of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) would probably prefer to forget. Reeling from the stinging loss of its bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago—ousted in the first round of voting, despite a very public trip by President and Mrs. Obama to Copenhagen to support the bid—the USOC couldn’t avoid the beating it received in the press, its icy relationship with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) exposed in headline news. “It was a defeat for the USOC, not for Chicago,” said Denis Oswald, an IOC member from Switzerland, in a New York Times report. Following the unsuccessful New York bid to host the 2010 games—the failure of the estimated $50 million Chicago bid exposed cracks in both the national and international relationships with the USOC. Leaders of the U.S. National Governing Bodies (NGBs) publicly called for the resignation of Stephanie Streeter (BA ’79), the USOC interim chief executive who had been appointed just months earlier. With the Vancouver Olympics fast approaching, the USOC governing board took the bold move of appointing a new CEO just weeks before the start of the winter games.
Scott Blackmun’s appointment as the new CEO of the USOC in January 2010 marked the beginning of a much better year for the U.S. Olympic Movement. With barely enough time to unpack his desk, he was off to Vancouver for the February games—cheering American athletes on as they won a historic 37 medals. It was an exciting trip, but a working one too as he began the process of relationship building with the many players in the mulitilayered Olympic Movement—a community of local, regional, national, and international athletes and administrators. This is familiar ground for Blackmun—he has held positions at the USOC as general counsel and senior managing director for sport resources as well as interim CEO. He is a lawyer, a philosopher, as well as an athlete and fan—he played four years of varsity soccer at Dartmouth, was a partner at Holme Roberts & Owen LLP, and COO of the sports and entertainment colossus Anschutz Entertainment Group. He accepted the CEO appointment keenly aware of the challenges the USOC faces—and eager to take them on. In the interview that follows, he discusses his path from law to the Olympic Movement, and more, saying, “This is the job I want to retire from. And I don’t want to retire anytime soon.”
PattiSue Plumer ’89 (BS ’85)
The chance to realize an Olympic dream doesn’t come around at all for most people. For PattiSue Plumer it came twice. An all-American and two-time NCAA track and field champion as an undergraduate at Stanford, Plumer qualified for the Seoul games and trained for the competition while in her second year at Stanford Law School. To fit it all in, her days began at 5 a.m. with a 5K run—then classes, work as an RA and as a teaching assistant, and more running. She was pushing herself so hard that she eventually broke—winding up in the hospital for more than a week with pneumonia. But she recovered in time to complete her 2L exams and compete with the U.S. Olympic team in Seoul. A year later she broke the women’s American record in the 5,000 meter run—while also practicing law as an associate at Holtzman, Wise & Shepard. She qualified for her second Olympic competition in 1992 and was the top American finisher in the women’s 3,000, placing fifth in the Barcelona games. She was inducted into the Stanford Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999 in recognition of her inspired running career that overcame injury and illness.
Deeply committed to the sport, Plumer has chaired the Athletes Advisory Committee for USA Track & Field (1996-2002)—working with the USOC to formulate policies and practices to support athletes. A track and field coach at Los Altos High School since 2006, she enjoys giving back to the next generation—hoping to inspire her students to do their best both academically and physically.
By Sharon Driscoll
Plumer: You were appointed CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the USOC, just weeks before the start of the winter games in Vancouver. How was that experience—going almost immediately into the Olympics and then the Paralympics?
Blackmun: It was an unbelievable opportunity for me to get immersed in the Olympic Movement. All of the people who play a significant role in the movement were there. Fortunately for us, the athletes from the United States performed brilliantly and behaved brilliantly, so we didn’t have any issues that from an administrative standpoint required our attention. We won the medal count on the Olympic side and we finished fifth on the Paralympic side. We would like to focus some of our attention going forward on getting back to being one of the leaders in the medal count in the Paralympics, as we were in Atlanta.
Are you now into the nuts and bolts of the job?
I’ve been here just about two months. The experience in Vancouver was special and unique. But last week was the first time that I could sit down and focus on organizational development, marketing, international relations, etc., the way that you would under normal circumstances.
Have there been any surprises?
No. I’ve been very pleased with the quality of the people involved in the movement, both at the staff level and the volunteer level. I don’t think we’re planning any revolutions here.
Any special concerns about the safety of athletes in 2014 given the Chechen issue and recent violence in Moscow?
There is always a concern, but the games are four years out and we are not actively planning security for 2014 around today’s events.
The reaction in Russia to its team’s less-than-stellar performance in Vancouver was pretty dramatic, with headlines of firings. Perhaps it would have happened the same here in the United States. It struck me that the Olympic Games are still very relevant and very important to a country’s national image.
I completely agree. The Olympics and Paralympics are played on a world stage and people are understandably proud when their athletes perform well. I think particularly for Russia, since it’s hosting the next Olympic Winter Games, that sense of pride was only heightened.
It’s usually easier for athletes to compete at home. Competing in Russia in four years is going to be a very different experience from competing in Vancouver, which was about as close to home turf as you can get.
We had the best of all worlds in Vancouver because our athletes were for the most part in the same time zone, eating the same food and watching the same media as they do at home. It was like a home field advantage for us, but even better because we didn’t have the pressure that the athletes who host the games have. So, absolutely, I think that’s a factor in the medal count. It’s going to be very difficult for our athletes to feel as comfortable in Sochi because that’s quite a few time zones away and it is a much different culture from our North American culture.
The Chicago and New York bids to host future Olympic Games highlighted problems in the relationship between the USOC and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Has there been any sort of thawing of the ice or improvement of relationships since you took over?
I think what may have changed in recent months is the tone of the dialogue, which seems to be a little more respectful. As an outsider I had the impression that the tone was icy. Having been involved for a couple of months now, I think the IOC has been very respectful of us in its communications and vice versa. That’s a very small step forward, but it’s a real step.
But we’ve got long-standing challenges in terms of our role within the international Olympic Movement. We need to make sure that we are faced in the right direction, and over time I think our efforts will bear fruit. What we’re talking about here is relationship building, and that does not happen overnight.
What’s at issue with the relationship with the IOC?
It’s revenue sharing—the USOC share of broadcast revenue and the USOC share of top revenue. Those are the two primary issues that we’re addressing right now. We also sought to launch a network last year. We still believe that that’s in the best interests of the worldwide Olympic Movement, and we would very much like to do that if and when the IOC agrees with us.
What kind of a network?
We were looking at launching a cable network that would contain Olympic-themed or related programming—broadcast on a 24/7 basis all year, not just during the Olympics. This would give people access to individual National Governing Bodies activities—sporting events, training of athletes, other athlete issues, and more. The idea is to bring the Olympic Movement to the consumer on a day-to-day basis as opposed to a quadrennial basis.
Is the network proposal waiting approval from the IOC?
We have indicated that we have suspended the development of the network until the IOC decides that it agrees that it’s in the interests of the Olympic Movement.
Regarding broadcast of the Olympic Games, the current deal has no Internet viewing and only limited live coverage. I work with high school athletes—a group of very engaged, intelligent young people—and they barely watched the Olympics because it wasn’t live and when there was live coverage it began late in the evening. So it wasn’t the family viewing event it should be.
I think we’re losing a generation of viewers because they’re used to watching on the Internet and live television. Don’t we need the next generation to see these games and get excited by them?
Well, you’re not the first one to express that concern. I think the concern is a valid one, but we need to balance it with the quality of the production of the broadcast in Vancouver this year, which I thought was excellent. I thought the stories that were told were compelling and NBC has done a fantastic job of sharing with the viewers what the Olympic Movement is all about. The IOC controls broadcasting decisions. And while I think the NBC model has been very successful, there are a lot of people who would like to see these events live and on a broader variety of platforms, including mobile.
Going back to the relationship between the USOC and the National Governing Bodies (NGBs), I was very much involved with USA Track & Field and have experience with their interaction. To say it was a strained relationship would probably be a compliment. What is your view of the relationship between the NGBs and the USOC and the role of the USOC?
The USOC has several roles to play vis-à-vis the NGBs. Most importantly our job is to provide resources to them, both financial and in-kind, like sports science and sports medicine and access to the training centers so that they can identify, develop, train, and prepare our athletes. We’re not in a direct training relationship with the athletes, so our most important job is to provide resources to the NGBs so they can do that. With that said, it’s complicated because we also have responsibility for trying to help the NGBs be the best that they can be. And because of that we have preferred ways of doing business, best practices we’d like to see implemented—including approaches to governance, involvement of the AAC (Athletes Advisory Council), etc. Sometimes our job as a facilitator of best practices conflicts with our job of treating the NGBs like our most important customers, which they are. So we want to help them succeed and we want to be perceived as adding value, but we have a complex role as custodian of the movement in the United States, which sometimes creates tensions between the NGBs and the USOC.
There has been a real tension between the focus on medals and at the same time the focus on the need to have clean athletes, athletes not using performance-enhancing drugs. There is no reward for placing fourth or fifth, even if those who take first, second, and third later are proved to be “dirty.” The pressure from the medal count and prospects of financial reward for gaining a medal is often overwhelming.
There’s clearly a tension there. We have to focus on competitive excellence because if we were about anything else, I don’t think we would be fulfilling our obligations to the American people. We’re also about clean competition and our commitment to clean competition has to be paramount. Hopefully, we’ll continue to get better from a science standpoint. The athletes who finish fourth and fifth, some of them are faced with a direct challenge: If I engage in this prohibited behavior, do I increase the likelihood that I move from fourth or fifth to first, second, or third? And that’s the reason the inspirational and ethical piece of what we do is so important.
I understand that Home Depot pulled out of the jobs program, which offered support to athletes training for Olympics competition. Is there something in the pipeline to replace it? This is an issue, particularly for the sports that don’t have good sponsorship for athletes.
The Home Depot program was fantastic and we miss it. We’re now working with a company called Adecco. Adecco is focused on two pieces of the athlete career issue: how to help athletes get flexible employment opportunities while they’re still training and how to prepare them for life after they’ve finished competing. And there are some other programs out there. Are you familiar with a new nonprofit called In the Arena (ITA)?
Yes, I’ve heard of it.
I should disclose that I served on its board until I joined the USOC. ITA is providing stipends to athletes to help subsidize their training so that they can train instead of work. I think that model is fantastic and that the USOC has to support it philosophically. Our athletes can’t afford to train full time without support from somewhere so we always have to be looking for where that support can come from.
As a high school coach, I’ve observed a worrying trend. A number of colleges have recently cut programs in what we traditionally call Olympic sports. For example in the Pac-10 we’re down to five schools with swimming for men and maybe six for women. If the colleges continue to lose the ability to support these programs and to provide these programs, we’ll lose a great avenue for our young athletes coming up into the Olympic level. What can USOC do to stem the tide?
One of the disadvantages that we have in the United States is that we don’t get government funding for our Olympic programs. So it’s clearly in our interest to try to keep the Olympic sports as a part of the program within the National Collegiate Athletic Association. We’re engaged in a regular dialogue with the NCAA and one of the very first meetings that I had after I took this job was with the NCAA because we clearly recognize the value that it is adding to our Olympic efforts. With that said, the funding challenges aren’t going to go away overnight. I don’t have any great answers as I sit here with you today.
Working with college athletic directors, it becomes almost a numbers game and they have a hard time working outside the box. I think that the USOC or maybe the NGBs could play a role not just in funding but also in working with athletic directors to create models that are more sustainable over the long term.
I will admit to not being an expert on this subject, but I’d be very open minded about that because the NCAA and its member institutions are critically important to our success in the Olympic Games and I would very much like to explore that.
I understand you played soccer at Dartmouth College.
I did. I played tennis for two years—never on the varsity—and varsity soccer for four years.
That’s not so easy to do.
It was a lot easier then than it is now, I’ll tell you that. It’s much more competitive now. But sports are so important to students, and for many reasons. I always did better academically when we were in season, even though I had very little time. Being in season made me so much more disciplined. I’m sure you’ve seen this too.
Absolutely. I have that conversation with parents almost on a daily basis. Now we have the neurologists and the biochemists supporting the theory too, not only in terms of time management issues but also brain function.
Did you always want to study law? And when you came to Stanford Law School, was sports law a goal you had in mind?
I was a philosophy major in college. There aren’t a lot of philosophy jobs coming out of college. Law was an area that bore a lot of similarities to philosophy, so I enjoyed the study of law. I’m a huge fan of law school in terms of what it does for critical thinking abilities. My experience at Stanford was fantastic. I loved it. I would be misleading you, though, if I told you I envisioned myself as a sports lawyer coming out of Stanford. I ended up spending most of the first 10 years of my career doing communications law and representing radio networks and radio stations. I only started doing real sports work in 1991 when I started helping the USOC with some of its sponsorship and licensing matters.
How did that come about?
The USOC was negotiating a joint venture with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and wanted to add some external law firm resources to its in-house negotiating team. The firm I was with, Holme Roberts & Owen LLP (HRO), was fortunate enough to be selected to do that. I was one of two people on that initial team, the junior guy. What started as a relatively narrow and isolated relationship just grew over the next seven or eight years into something fairly broad based. That formed the basis for my receiving an invitation to join the USOC as its general counsel beginning in late 1998.
What drew you to Colorado Springs? It’s not usually where Stanford graduates end up.
At the time my father was working for a company based in Pueblo, not far from Colorado Springs, so I knew the area. HRO had an 11-person office in Colorado Springs with, I think, six lawyers from Stanford, two from Harvard, and two from Yale. It was an incredibly impressive collection of lawyers who wanted to have a sophisticated practice but also wanted to live in a place that was a little more balanced than some of the other options. HRO made a very compelling case to me when I was interviewing. I did my 2L summer internship there and then joined the firm.
How does a legal education serve you in your current position?
The U.S. Olympic Movement is complicated, and being able to approach problems with a critical thinking background is very helpful. A legal approach to problems teaches you to take the emotion out—to try to dispassionately look at the pros and cons of any particular action. There are so many compelling issues that we face here. We’re in part a resource allocation nonprofit. So when supporters have the choice to give money to so many different causes, all of which are valid, it’s helpful to be able to take the emotion out of it and make the case.
What are your immediate goals and how will you view your job at the USOC as a success?
Our two most pressing issues are both medium- to long-term issues. Our ability to continue generating revenue is one. Most of our revenue for this quadrennium 2009-2012 is already contractually obligated, so what I’m focusing my time on now is making sure that we have the platforms and programs in place to generate revenue in the 2013-2016 quadrennium and beyond. It’s a great opportunity for us to be able to look out two years ahead. The other is the international side: As I said earlier, it’s going to be difficult to make any progress there in the short term, but I do have the luxury of being able to look at things strategically and on a long-term basis.
Do you see sports law as a growing opportunity for young lawyers and would you encourage them to go into that field?
People are attracted to sports because it brings out the best in us. It brings out the aspirational and inspirational tendencies that we have and would like our kids to have. So sports law is always going to be very popular. I think the challenge associated with the field is that so many people want to do it that it’s very, very competitive. The good news is that there are many different routes that you can take to a sports career, from starting out selling tickets to unpopular sporting events to going to law school and working for a high-end firm and getting exposure to it that way. And I think the desire to have sports in this country plays a significant role and is only going to continue.
Thanks so much for speaking with us today, Scott.