(Final update: 1/26/07) | Commentary by Geo. Nichols

U.S. Skeleton Federation Mismanagement


Morale in the American skeleton and bobsled community has suffered from a series of troubling events involving its governing body including :

A slew of resignations resulting in five Executive Directors since 2004, high board turnover, an infamously mishandled sexual harassment case, violation of doping regulations, a disturbingly high proportion of revenue diverted away from the organizational mission, reluctance to make available public documents including audited financial statements, precipitous decline in Olympic performance (the best skeleton finish in the '06 Games was 6th place, versus three medals in the '02 Games), criticism from other organizations including the USOC (US Olympic Committee), remarkably poor public relations and website, unflattering media stories, etc.

During this time, the Board of Directors and the USOC have acted insufficiently, allowing the US Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF) to defy ethical and regulatory standards.

Final Update (1/26/07)

It's unclear whether USOC's ongoing reorganization of USBSF will succeed. I hope that happens, so the athletes can focus on sliding. In the meantime, I finally received some of the public USBSF documents--152 days after my original request. The USBSF ignored my requests until shortly after I appealed to the USOC for help. Also, the USBSF finally redesigned its 2002-era website.

Update (4/24/06)

See the attached Word document announcing a board meeting to discuss the USBSF proposal to request USOC remediation. (Controversially, this hastily-arranged meeting was not announced to the public or membership at large.)

Excerpt from the President :

"Unfortunately, the future is bleak. USBSF is about to run out of money; and there are no prospects for funds to keep the Federation going at this time."

Indeed, as I anticipated several months ago, by antagonizing its largest benefactor the USBSF is now suffering dire financial consequences. The USOC is punishing the federation by withholding at least $220,000 in scheduled payments.

Furthermore, a major four-year marketing relationship with Verizon is coming to an end. As I noted earlier, sponsors will understandably avoid a scandal-plagued organization like the USBSF. Of further note, the proposal mentions that bylaws are not in compliance with various laws, USOC bylaws, and guidelines.

My original article

(Everything below was mostly published Jan 2006)

Anti-doping Violation

In January 2006, American Zach Lund--the world's top-ranked slider--was suspended after testing positive for finasteride, the active ingredient in hair restoration product Proscar. Lund, who has been balding, has openly declared use of hair restoration medication since 1999. Despite proving he made an honest mistake, Lund was banned from the Olympics. (I posted my thoughts about this on someone's blog.)

In a surprising twist, the USBSF violated regulations by failing to immediately notify the USADA of the results. [source: 1]. Upon noticing this, the international federation (FIBT) was forced to step in and suspend Lund. Only then did the USBSF submit test results to the USADA. The head of the FIBT bluntly noted in the New York Times: "In general, we do not step in and do this...but there was no evidence of management by the U.S. federation." The article goes on to note that the USOC is also upset with the USBSF's mishandling of the case.

Revolving Door at the Executive Suite

USBSF sports director Terry Kent's role in the doping fiasco was reported by the New York Times [2], which noted the violation of USBSF's contract with the USOC was made "more troublesome" by the fact that Kent previously worked at USOC as an executive who specifically "negotiated and completed U.S.O.C. contracts with nine federations, including bobsled and skeleton."

Kent didn't retain his position very long after this incident. Was he fired? No, the USBSF promoted him to Acting Executive Director, the federation's top position.

Remarkably, Kent is the same man who abruptly resigned as Executive Director of USACK (the Olympic kayaking organization) days before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, leaving the organization in chaos and unnecessarily burdening U.S. Olympic kayaking athletes, who ended up with their worst performance since 1972. Will the USOC and USBSF learn from history, or are they doomed to repeat it?

So, as of March 2006, Kent became the organization's fifth director since the start of 2004. The USBSF won't discuss the circumstances of predecessor Chris Overholt's abrupt departure but he apparently ceased managing operations well before the March 29th press release announcing his replacement. He apparently led the organization for less than two months before leaving. It appears Overholt wants to forget about his stint (understandably) -- his new bio describes past positions in great detail, but conspicuously omits any acknowledgement of the USBSF.

Before that, Robie Vaughn served as Interim Executive Director during a brief but tempestuous five months. Vaughn took over the reins from Claire DelNegro, who was Executive Director for just six months before resigning. (The details of her departure are unclear: the New York Times [2] stated she was "ousted" by the Board of Directors but the USBSF vigorously disputes this, instead citing family relocation reasons.)

Moreover, an alarmingly high number of board members have failed to complete their terms, including resignations of the prior President, Executive Director(s), and Treasurer.

Financial Concerns

The USBSF's misconduct--including the aforementioned violation of its USOC obligations--is particularly audacious because it has earned the ire of it largest benefactor: the USOC.

Being a former accountant, I reviewed the financial records of the USBSF and USOC and noticed that in 2003 and 2004, the federation received nearly $1.73 million in grants. This appears to be more than half of the federation's total revenue. [3] The USBSF's disregard for a donor that provides most of its funding is a surefire recipe for disaster (more on that below).

I'm alarmed by how the USBSF is using its contributions. According to its latest IRS filing, program services were only 52.9% of total expenses. So for every dollar spent by the organization, less than 53 cents goes directly to supporting its stated mission . The rest goes to fundraising (23.1%) and management & general (i.e. overhead) (24.0%). Donors ought to be concerned that almost half of their contributions are not directly used for the organization's mission.

This 52.9% figure falls far short of the 60% or 65% minimum considered reasonable by nonprofit watchdogs [4]; well-run nonprofits often score upwards of 80% to 90%. This figure is also well below the norm for USOC NGB's (United States Olympic Committee national governing bodies), as I document in the footnotes below. [5]

Seeking greater accountability from its NGB's, the USOC launched a new program in 2005 where funding would be dependent on "athlete performance and sport pipeline (including coaching), governance structure, management, ability to generate revenue and operational efficiency." Given such criteria, I wouldn't be surprised if the USBSF receives a much smaller slice of the USOC funding pie in the coming year. That, of course, would be terrible news for bobsled and skeleton athletes.

Is Management Hiding Financial Documents?

It's difficult to get a clear understanding of business operations without the annual report and audited financial statements. On January 19th, I made a simple request for the USBSF's various public documents (which unfortunately do not appear on their site). Even though federation bylaws specify [6] members are entitled to certain documents, I still have not received them nearly 100 days since my original request. Disturbingly, this request went to the Treasurer, who abruptly resigned about five days later.

Fortunately, the Acting Director has recently agreed to provide these documents, so I am hopeful for a positive resolution soon. Nevertheless, USBSF coach and critic Terry Allen warns that--based on his experiences--this apparent cooperation is just "a delay tactic" that "never pans out." Also, several sources (including a helpful federation committee member referring to these as "ghost documents") imply that various USBSF members have made similar requests over the years that have gone unfulfilled. It is unclear whether USBSF's history of non-compliance reflects efforts to hide evidence of fraud or mismanagement, or due to reasons less sinister.

Head Coach Sexual Harassment Allegations

Sexual harassment complaints against Tim Nardiello began shortly after he was hired as the head coach in 2002, but the USBSF did not resolve this serious issue in the intervening 3 1/2 years. The federation's initial, lackadaisical response was recounted in The New York Times [7]:

The complaints were lodged with Matt Roy, then the federation's executive director, who said yesterday that he did not remember how extensively the complaints were investigated.

"I think, I assume, we treated it seriously and looked into it," Roy said in a telephone interview. "In the end of it, I know I talked to Tim."

Disregarding an assistant coach's request for an outside panel to investigate, Roy suggested the complaints were frivolous, as the article goes on to note:

"A lot of athletes complain about coaches," Roy said. "There is a tradition in this sport, in both bobsled and skeleton. If an athlete makes the team, it is because they are a great athlete. If they don't make the team, it's because they're black or Jewish or it's the coach's fault. They always want to blame someone else."

Finally in late 2005, the USBSF decided to ask for Nardiello's resignation, but would wait until after the Olympics to do so. Soon afterwards, this issue became public and the USBSF subsequently changed course by suspending him immediately.

The USBSF said it would conduct an investigation, which didn't come to pass. When the USOC opened its own inquiry, the USBSF requested USOC take over the entire investigation, a request that was promptly rejected. Forced to handle the matter internally, the federation appointed a three-person committee, but one member was removed after drawing criticism for possible bias against the accuser(s) [8]. The USBSF later reinstated Nardiello after it took the case to an arbitrator who ruled in the coach's favor. However, the very next day, USOC announced the results of its investigation and denied Nardiello permission to be an Olympic coach. Ultimately, the USBSF fired Nardiello on the charge of insubordination.

The USOC again voiced strong disapproval of USBSF behavior:

"Equally troubling is the manner by which this matter, and others, has been handled by the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation, which long ago could have taken steps to address and correct this situation," added Scherr. "As a result, America's skeleton athletes have had to deal with an unnecessary distraction during their preparation for the upcoming Olympic Winter Games, and that is unacceptable."

Athletes' Complaints

Another heated issue involving the USBSF is the partially-subjective criteria used to select athletes for the World Cup team. Caleb Smith (2006 Jr National Champion), Chris Hedquist (2004 Europa Cup Champion), and Rob Murray (2005 Europa Cup Champion) are among the athletes that have either filed grievances or made critical comments about this process or related matters [9, personal correspondence]. The New York Times noted:

"Our federation operates like a politically corrupt brotherhood," Hedquist said. "My heart goes out to the women who complained about Tim. That's hard. The athletes in this federation have no voice." Hedquist said the selection dispute highlighted one of the issues in the sexual-harassment case: the athletes who came forward said they had been reluctant to do so earlier because of the power coaches have to select team members.

Website Problems

On a milder note, The USBSF's lack of responsiveness to its athletes and the general public yielded another result : the creation of NewSliders.com.

Frustratingly, the USBSF website is largely devoid of current, useful content and is rife with usability flaws, as noted in my related commentary. Additionally, it has been my experience that USBSF staffers generally fail to respond to emails and calls requesting info (e.g. basic info on the sport, how to get lessons or equipment, etc -- info that should be on their site in the first place).

Since NewSliders.com launched, I've received plenty of positive feedback for addressing this gap. I'd like to think that I've helped introduce many folks (maybe even future Olympians) to this awesome--albeit under-publicized--sport.

In sum, the USBSF is out of touch. If it would simply address these issues, it could encourage new participants and spectators. Doing so would give the sport greater exposure, increase USBSF membership revenue, and generate more donations and sponsorship opportunities. Instead, the public now associates the USBSF with news headlines about incompetence and scandalous behavior. This bodes poorly for sponsorship revenue: advertisers assiduously avoid being associated with negative news.


As a USBSF member, I hope the organization will use this opportunity to finally reform itself in order to restore trust and confidence among athletes and the public. Here are a few things I'd like to see:

1) Hire a permanent executive director immediately. The organization has been without a permanent director since July 2005. The position is currently held by an Acting Director following in the footsteps of two Interim Directors who resigned in rapid succession.

2) Practice a strong adherence to rules and regulations (e.g. USBSF bylaws, USOC Code of Ethics, etc).

3) Greatly increase operational efficiency so that a reasonable proportion of contributions support its stated mission of supporting bobsled and skeleton.

4) Improve communication and transparency. Beyond a much-needed improvement in PR, the organization should make annual reports, audited financials, and IRS Form 990's readily available to members in a timely [10] manner.

5) Determine whether more objective criteria should be used in the World Cup team selection process.

6) Radically overhaul the website in order to improve its content, timeliness, and usability. This should help the organization better engage athletes and the general public.

7) Relocate the organization's headquarters from Lake Placid, NY to Park City, UT (currently rumored to be under consideration), which should result in many immediate improvements.

8) Institute more effective governance policies, administered by a revamped Board of Directors that is actively involved in overseeing and supporting the organization.

Footnotes & References

1. Zinser, L. (2006, Jan 14). American federation admits it mishandled a doping case. New York Times, pp. D1.

2. Zinser, L. (2006, Jan 21). Bruised by Scandal, Federation Chooses a New Director. New York Times, pp. D1.

3. I'm estimating because USBSF doesn't provide a breakdown on its Form 990 regarding USOC grants per fiscal year, a period that does not coincide with the USOC calendar year.

4. BBB Wise Giving Alliance Standards For Charity Accountability , American Institute of Philanthropy Criteria

5. My semi-random sample of other USOC NGB's program service expenses (compared to USBSF's 53%, which was the lowest I came across): Luge (57%), Biathlon (68%), USOC (73%), Figure Skating (82%), Sailing (85%), Rowing (89%), Wrestling (90%), Water Polo (93%).

6. USBSF bylaws (Chapter XI Section 7) clearly state audited financials shall be made available to members. Members are also entitled to meeting minutes (Ch. XI Section 6, Ch. XVII Section 2, and Ch. 18 Section 5).

7. Zinser, L. (2006, Jan 2). Skeleton coach was admonished in 2002. New York Times, pp. D6.

8. Zinser, L. (2006, Jan 3). Skeleton coach seeks resolution to his case. New York Times, pp. D2.

9. Zinser, L. (2006, Jan 12). Distractions are becoming obstacles for the skeleton team. New York Times, pp. D5.

10. By filing its tax return belatedly, the USBSF denies the public a chance to see current, relevant information. In each of the last three years it requested filing extensions (which the IRS denied on one occasion because the request itself was filed so late).