Professor Dionne Koller, Associate Dean of the UB Law School and Director of the Center for Sport and Law, never made it to the Olympic Games as an athlete. Growing up, Koller was a gymnast, and sports were an essential part of her life. Now as a law professor, sports and the welfare of young athletes is at the center of her career.
Koller was recently appointed co-chair of the Commission on the State of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC Commission) by Washington Senator and Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell. The Commission was created by Congress through the Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 and has a narrow charge to investigate and evaluate reforms enacted in the wake of the Dr. Larry Nassar scandal that rocked amateur sports six years ago.
The Commission is currently awaiting a Congressional funding appropriation so that it can begin its mandate. Koller says she is excited about working with her fellow committee members, many of whom are Olympic gold medalists, and she expects that once they get up and running, the Commission will make a real contribution. She sees this as a great opportunity to do some good for the country and youth sports. She says it’s a step that hasn’t been taken in youth sports since the 1970s.
Quite separate from her role on the Commission, Koller has written and spoken extensively as an advocate for the rights and welfare of young athletes. This past summer she testified before a Senate committee to urge Congress to allow college athletes to earn income from endorsements. She says college athletes currently miss out on the opportunity to profit from their achievements financially. They can make money if and when they turn pro, but those opportunities are limited, especially for women. It’s not fair that colleges and universities get to profit, but the athletes don’t.
Koller is also outspoken about the “right to participate.” She says the data show that many kids drop out of team sports in middle school. Koller says it’s wrong that kids are deciding by the age of 14 whether they are athletes or not. She cites the way amateur athletics is currently structured in the United States as a major factor in the drop in participation. Currently, the USOPC recognizes the governing bodies of all sports. Those governing bodies cover athletes from elementary school all the way through to adulthood. Koller questions whether they are really serving the best interests of young athletes, all young athletes. “We are at a point in this country where we need a wholesale rethinking of how we consider and do youth and amateur sports,” Koller says.
Young athletes drop out because the sports are geared towards those wanting to compete at the highest level. There is no middle ground for those who want to play just for the sake of having fun. The “Varsity Blues” scandal showed a light on sports being a backdoor to elite universities and the competition involved in youth sports in this country.
Koller believes the United States needs to develop a different model for youth sports. Currently, the country is very good at producing high-caliber athletes that can compete at the highest level. But the US is not very good at getting everyone out there to play. Koller is passionate about including everyone on the field.