A USA Curling checklist

In order to thrive, a sport needs at least one of the following:

  1. A substantial professional league or tour
  2. A strong national governing body

On that, we agree. Well, most of us. Some curlers have expressed the sentiment that a strong NGB isn’t necessarily top priority.

I disagree for reasons ranging from the practical to the philosophical. And we should dispense with the idea being propagated that the clubs are choosing the GNCC over USA Curling as part of a “free market.” An NGB has responsibilities — national championships, representation on the world’s stage, SafeSport, elite athlete representation, audits, disability sports development, etc. — that the GNCC does not. Comparing the GNCC to an NGB is like comparing a math tutor to a public school.

An NGB also has to develop national teams to compete in world championships and the Olympics, something that has a tangible benefit for all clubs because it helps drive people through the doors. (Also, national-team spending is roughly equal to the USOPC’s annual grant.) Some people may go to a curling club because a friend suggests it, but as someone who runs guest programs and sees the registration numbers, I can attest to the hard evidence of the Olympic bump.

But even if you view a strong NGB as a “nice to have” rather than a “must have,” it’s worth discussing what we want to see in an NGB.

And there’s something I can’t stress enough — this discussion shouldn’t be predicated on what you think of USA Curling over the last two, five or 20 years. It’s about what you want to see.

I’ve asked this question in various social media, and while some people remain fixated on the question of why you’d want to support USA Curling after the Jeff Plush saga, the botched members’ assembly or kicking out the GNCC, some people have contributed some interesting ideas …

Membership

This is, more or less, the sole focus of the Governance 4.0 committee. Such a narrow focus has drawn some complaints, but membership was at the heart of the GNCC-USAC split, and fixing the membership model may fix a lot of other issues.

Tiered memberships for individuals and clubs

On Dec. 12, interim CEO Dean Gemmell presented a model with tiered individual memberships (basic, competitive, daily, etc.) and tiered club memberships (per sheet, arena, etc.). Going with individual memberships raises a lot of questions about representation in the Members Assembly and on the board, but it might be worthwhile in the long run.

The argument the GNCC made was that clubs were having trouble paying for USAC membership, and the GNCC was willing to be a cheaper alternative, even if it meant they were functioning as an alternative to rather than a subsidiary of USAC. Take away mandatory fees of $34/member for each club, and the clubs may be more likely to be USAC members, perhaps paying a nominal fee just to be in the club directory and so forth.

The other issue is crunching the numbers to make sure USAC doesn’t lose so much in membership fees that it can’t function. But perhaps that can be overcome by scaling back and diverting most of its grants-and-loans operations to a donor-funded Foundation (see below).

Standardize the meaning of “regional association”

As someone put it in a social media discussion: “If regions need to be a thing, define their reasons for existence and they should all be fairly similar (experiments or new ideas is fine, but one region being full service and others being…not… is uncool).”

Pre-ouster, GNCC was a regional association that charged $15 per member in addition to its optional insurance. Other regions charged $3. In return, GNCC offered ran (and will continue to run, even as an independent organization) assistance programs to new and needy clubs, and its bonspiels are reputed to be awesome.

Between the large fees and the massive geographic reach, which included the high-growth area in the South, the GNCC was a behemoth compared with other regions. Add in a bit of arrogance from GNCC advocates about all the programs it’s able to fund, and it’s not hard to see why other regions may have resented the GNCC, which would explain why many of them voted to expel. (Reminder: Even with elite athletes’ share of the vote, which is 33.3% by federal law, going against the GNCC, a majority of non-athlete voters needed to vote against the GNCC to uphold the board’s action to expel.)

More generally, the old system was simply untenable. Had cooler heads prevailed, USAC and its regions could have figured out what rights and responsibilities needed to be handled on a national level and which ones needed to be handled regionally. However we move forward, that discussion needs to be had now.

One option is the GNCC model, in which regions take a big role in instruction, grants and other areas. This would require other regions to ramp up to GNCC’s level of resources, probably with a couple of mergers and higher membership fees (which should be offset by cheaper national dues, since the NGB would be punting more to the regions).

The other option is to give regions little responsibility other than organizing the playdowns for national competitions, leaving everything else to the national body.

If we assume the GNCC is going to remain as an independent organization, perhaps eventually mending fences to become a national affiliate akin to the USWCA, the second option is probably better just so clubs aren’t paying substantial dues to USAC, a regional association, GNCC, USWCA, the local sewer and water utility, the local pizza place, etc., etc.

The board

End unanimous votes at USAC board meetings

Perhaps another way of saying this: Have more detailed meeting minutes that capture the whole discussion — in favor, opposed, skeptical, etc. To give credit where it’s due, the GNCC does a good job on this front.

Membership vote on independent board members

The bylaws say the USAC board must have at least one and no more than three independent members, and this is meant to satisfy the USOPC’s insistence on independent voices. I’ve read and reread the bylaws, and I can’t see the specific mechanism under which these members are elected. In practice, at USAC and elsewhere, independent directors tend to be recruited by the board and then rubber-stamped by the members.

Elite players

Instead of selecting High Performance athletes, give High Performance places to the top teams at the national championships

Caveat: This wouldn’t necessarily hold true for juniors, where some alternate talent-identification protocols should surely exist. A talented junior might happen to live in a place where it’s not easy to find similarly talented teammates, and USAC wouldn’t want to shut down that junior’s pathway.

Some curlers would love to see the High Performance Program dismantled, but the USOPC, whose grant money more or less covers HPP expenses, would not be happy.

Support professional play but don’t pour a lot of money into it

Maybe easier said than done, but the benefits would be clear. Perhaps picking up broadcast feeds from more of the big Canadian events would pique sponsor interest in teams that would play in them? Or maybe some more US events?

Related …

Quality live-streaming of events

Even better, get them on TV somehow.

Staff

Band together with other small-ish NGBs for some professional services such as media relations and SafeSport

I don’t see anything in the USOPC’s NGB requirements that would expressly forbid this potential cost-saving move.

SafeSport work requires professional staff, even with the US Center for SafeSport taking exclusive jurisdiction over cases of sexual abuse and criminal behavior. At the NGB level, the educational aspect is vital, and it has to be tailored to each specific sport. It’s not hard to imagine a group of, say, five people taking responsibility for eight NGBs.

For now, USAC has changed its chain of SafeSport responsibility. In the past, SafeSport responsibilities fell to the CEO and CFO, which was an unconventional setup made worse by the fact that the CEO was Jeff Plush, whose SafeSport record came into question from his tenure as NWSL commissioner, and the CFO was Eric Gleason, Plush’s former colleague in US Soccer circles. Now, responsibility for handling complaints (other than those for which the Center takes jurisdiction) will fall to the Judiciary Committee and an Independent Reviewer from the United States Council for Athletes’ Health.

NGBs also need a lot of help in media relations. It’s not just USAC. Trust me on this.

Basic competence/responsiveness

Complaints abound. Unreturned calls and messages. Failing to get an updated rulebook published by the beginning of the season.

Maybe if a shared staff handles some day-to-day NGB functions, USAC’s staff can have a narrower focus on member service.

Support

USA Curling offers grants, and it has a loan program to get rocks to clubs. They’re also the pass-through organization (“guarantor,” though I don’t know enough about international law to know the details) for interest-free loans from the World Curling Federation to help build dedicated-ice facilities.

USAC’s critics say this isn’t enough. USAC should probably counter by …

Formally launching the USA Curling Foundation

USAC hired a staffer to run a foundation. It was never really advertised or fully described, and that staffer has since departed.

Starting a foundation would provide a more visible path for donations that can be spent on the grants and loans that clubs need.

Along those same lines, it’d be nice if the GNCC would finance its dedicated funds through donations rather than through mandatory membership fees. But we’ll talk about GNCC reform another time.

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Simulating a 48-team World Cup (nerd alert!)

With FIFA talking about backing away from the truly dreadful concept of three-team groups at the World Cup, I came up with a couple of alternatives — the four-team group under discussion but with a 24-team knockout round rather than 32, and a double-elimination tournament — for a Soccer America article.

The commenters don’t seem enamored of the double-elimination tournament, but that didn’t stop me from running simulations. Take a look at the Google workbook.

I did two types of brackets:

  1. A straight 48-team double-elimination bracket
  2. Double-elimination groups of 6, with the winners advancing to the quarterfinals

Then I simulated each one using different simulators:

  1. https://www.footysimulator.co.uk/ for the straight bracket
  2. A combination of Elo ratings and random numbers for the 6-team groups

If you’d like to play around with the simulations yourself, just make a copy. You could even simulate a different qualifying process — in my suggested systems, most qualifying is done in 6-team groups from which the group winners advance and are eligible for byes, the runners-up advance, and certain third-place teams advance to fill Africa’s ninth spot (based on FIFA’s new quotas) and an intercontinental playoff.

Why support USA Curling?

“Why give any money to an organization that has been hostile to so many members and bungled an investigation of its CEO?”

“How does USA Curling membership affect me if I’m never going to play in a national championship?”

Both legitimate questions. And not easy to answer in a quick message on social media.

So I’ll give it a shot here, and I’ll have to start with some basics …

What is a National Governing Body (NGB)?

NGBs are established under federal law to govern each Olympic or Olympic-adjacent sport. That law is the Ted Stevens Act, revised not long ago to add “SafeSport” in as many places as they could while still leaving intact an archaic definition of “amateur.” If you’re eligible to compete in international events, which now includes pretty much everyone, you’re “amateur,” even if you make a lot of money.

An NGB must, according to the Act and from US Olympic and Paralympic Committee bylaws (especially 8.4.1) do the following things, roughly paraphrased and not exhaustive: 

  1. Represent the sport internationally (e.g., being a member of the World Curling Federation).
  2. Conduct events (national championships) that lead to world championships.
  3. Have a strategic plan that spans the gamut from grassroots to elites, including such things as marketing, instructor training, performance analysis, talent identification, sports medicine, sports safety, marketing, etc.
  4. Ensure equity for women and run programs for disabled athletes.
  5. Comply with the Center for SafeSport, which investigates several types of abuse claims and puts offenders’ names in an easily accessible database. (See discussion below. This is important.)
  6. Comply with the US Anti-Doping Agency.
  7. Have insurance (whether its members need to get insurance through the NGB itself is the subject of some debate — other NGBs allow clubs to use other insurers, but USAC seems rather insistent that clubs must use USAC’s).
  8. Have elite athletes (the definition is complicated but basically includes people who have played in world championships or could reasonably compete for qualification for those events) comprise 33.3% of the board and all relevant committees.
  9. Submit to periodic audits of its governance, effectiveness, etc. The next one for USAC is due in 2023. Those audits are publicly posted.

Though it’s not explicitly stated, a good NGB strategic plan includes getting eyeballs on the sport and getting money from sponsors. USA Curling spends a considerable amount on broadcasting. Their biggest sponsors are Toyota and Columbia Sportswear; see the bottom of their home page for what I hope is an updated list of their sponsors and partners.

So what does USA Curling do specifically?

A lot. The question is whether it does it well or fairly.

I’ve gone through 990s and Audited Financial Statements to come up with a snapshot of USAC finances (and, while a side-by-side comparison is nonsensical because the organizations have different responsibilities, GNCC finances).

Their big responsibility, over which they were threatened with decertification a few years ago, is the national teams — including youth and Paralympic teams. They get annual grants of around $1.5m from the USOPC, and that’s roughly what they spend on the national teams. (Not all of it can be parsed out easily — the “travel” line item isn’t broken down, and some national team programs may benefit other curlers.)

In 2014, the USOPC shoved some changes upon USAC because national team results weren’t good enough. Fortunately, the USOPC has been willing to back that up with money. So far.

Other big expenses include broadcasting (Amazon Prime and ESPN aren’t in a bidding war to show the national championships), salaries, travel and insurance.

USAC says it spends more than half of the money it receives in membership fees on member services, but that’s a vague definition. They do provide instruction for instructors, on-ice officials, ice techs, etc., and they could stand to spend more on their national championships.

Can we have two NGBs?

No, under federal law (Stevens Act, Subchapter II) and international law — or at least International Olympic Committee law. USOPC Bylaw 8.3.1: “In accordance with the IOC’s Olympic Charter, the corporation will not recognize or certify more than one NGB in each sport.” Also, an NGB may not “delegate decision-making and control of matters central to governance.”

So if you’ve been following this and wondering if the GNCC can become a co-NGB of sorts, something that was asked and not answered at a GNCC board meeting once, the answer is no. I think USAC might also run afoul of its auditors if it simply handed over grassroots curling to another organization.

What options do we have other than leaving or trying to push for reform from within? 

The nuclear option is decertification. See 8.11 of USOPC Bylaws and the USOPC Dispute Resolution Policy.

Does decertification ever happen? 

Yes. It happened in taekwondo, modern pentathlon and (team) handball. 

Does it help? 

Do you see a lot of taekwondo, modern pentathlon and (team) handball these days? (Not counting kids’ taekwondo, which usually has as much to do with competitive taekwondo as a Planet Fitness has to do with Olympic marathoning or weightlifting.)

But the threat of decertification produces change. USA Curling itself was threatened when its national teams underperformed (see above), which led to an emphasis on High Performance. USA Track and Field has been threatened because of the composition of its board. USA Gymnastics … that’s an ugly story, though the organization is reforming. USA Badminton had to reform under pressure in 2019.

And just this summer, the USOPC launched decertification proceedings against USA Skateboarding. The accusations are a bit more serious than USA Curling’s current issues: lack of background checks, revocation of tax status by the IRS, no anti-doping procedures, lack of child protection … yeah, it’s not good. (See the USOPC site for cases — Sections 8, 10 and 11 are the relevant cases here.)

Irony: former USAC CEO Jeff Plush, the epicenter of controversy in 2022, was a panel member in a Section 10 complaint against the US Equestrian Federation.

WHAT IS SAFESPORT?

(In allcaps because this is really important.)

A lot of Olympic sports have had horror stories of sexual abuse. Congress responded with some rewrites of the Stevens Act, including the official launch of the US Center for SafeSport and the SafeSport Code in 2017.

Then they left the Center underfunded. (I need to do a follow-up story to my 2019 Guardian piece at some point.)

But while the Center and the legislators who founded it have their critics, there’s no doubt a lot has changed. Some of it seems trivial — a youth soccer player can no longer text a coach to say he’s running late without including a parent or guardian — but is useful when you think of all the coaches who groomed their players for future dating. At curling clubs, we’ve had to pass rules on locker-room usage to make sure a young curler isn’t alone with an unrelated adult.

You can think of SafeSport having three main functions:

Training: If you’re even tangentially involved in sports, you have to take SafeSport training. I was a soccer coach, and I’m still a soccer referee, so I’ve watched this stuff quite a bit.

The database: Find suspended coaches, players and various peripheral people by sport, by name, by city, etc.

Investigations: The Center has exclusive jurisdiction (all sexual misconduct, criminal charges of child abuse, various failures to report, etc.) or discretionary jurisdiction (non-sexual child abuse, emotional and physical misconduct, criminal charges not involving sexual misconduct or child abuse, other failures to abide by the Code). 

In other words: If it’s a case of sexual misconduct, child abuse or something the Center simply wants to take on itself, the Center does it, NOT the NGB.

That’s not a choice. That’s the law.

And it’s a good thing. Twenty years ago, the overlords all decided to hand over anti-doping work to the US Anti-Doping Agency instead of having NGBs police themselves. Given the abuse problems in so many sports, can anyone doubt it’s a good idea to have another entity take on the bulk of the work?

That said, an NGB needs to have staffers to work on misconduct claims that the Center doesn’t investigate, and it must work to educate members on their rights and responsibilities.

(Which is why the notion that “GNCC can do SafeSport” doesn’t sit well with this reporter who has covered the issues and doubts that a volunteer organization can tackle them.)

WHAT CAN USA CURLING DO MOVING FORWARD?

Some people want the entire board to resign. I think that’s impractical and unnecessary, given the turnover of the top two people (the CEO and the board chair) and the fact that those two were eventually pushed out as a result of some political machinations that will probably never be fully public.

The reasons for leaving USAC would be:

  1. Handling of the Jeff Plush/NWSL situation.
  2. Handling of the GNCC situation.
  3. Inadequate work as an NGB.

The third is worth addressing, but let’s be honest — no one’s talking about leaving USAC because Curling Night in America sucked. Interim CEO Dean Gemmell agrees that it sucked, and he has thrown open the door to hear concerns about what USAC can do better.

Then there’s Plush. I can understand why some board members stuck with Plush for a while, given the investigations that turned up higher-ups in soccer who testified that Plush did what he could given his limited powers as NWSL commissioner. Having covered women’s soccer for a couple of decades, I can attest that his powers were indeed limited. But they weren’t that limited, he has shown a tendency to take appallingly bad advice, and he refused to cooperate with the Yates Report. Therefore, he’s out. I’m not going to fault the board for failing to push him out instantaneously. Firing a CEO isn’t a simple task, especially when a board chair also has to go.

That leaves GNCC, and I’m simply not worked up over that.

What? You’re not worked up over GNCC being kicked out?

Yeah, I’m going to steer clear of that for a bit. I agreed that they should’ve had an extra year to comply with USAC rules, but it has since become clear to me that they simply didn’t accept their position in the org chart.

I would also suggest asking all the regions and clubs who voted against GNCC why they did so.

So what else is on the list?

  • Regain trust. The Members Assembly at which the GNCC was kicked out was the nadir of an already frayed relationship between USAC and many members, even those who weren’t necessarily on GNCC’s side. (See this essay from Colin Hufman, an athlete rep on the board.)
  • Clarify bylaws and policies. Governance 3.0 just finished. Next: Governance 4.0, a direct response to the outcry of the past year.
  • Redefine membership. A flat fee of $34 per person in each USAC club isn’t working for everyone. USA Fencing’s tiered approach has been mentioned by multiple people, including me.
  • Give the USA Curling Foundation a proper launch. USAC has grant programs and is the guarantor of World Curling Federation loans. The Foundation needs to be a visible focal point for these efforts, and it needs to do effective fund-raising. USAC is set to give it an official launch … soon?

I’M A PHILOSOPHY GEEK. What would famous philosophers suggest regarding USA Curling?

John Rawls would similarly argue that civic unity can and should prevail.

David Hume would say sense data is all that matters, so we should stop using stopwatches when we play.

Plato would say we’re living in a cave, observing only the shadows of Niklas Edin and Tabitha Peterson.

John Stuart Mill of his own free will would order a half pint of shandy from the warm room bar and be particularly ill.

Ayn Rand would let the free market decide, which means we probably wouldn’t have any curling on TV at all.

And Rene Descartes would say curling doesn’t think; therefore, it is not.

I’m fundamentally utilitarian, and I think John Stuart Mill would argue that the curling community should act to spread the greatest amount of joy to the greatest number of curling clubs across the country, which would mean staying in USA Curling as a means of growing the sport as a whole for the benefit of all.

So that’s why, given my club’s decision to depart, I’m getting an individual membership. Not for my own benefits. I believe USA Curling needs reform, but I believe it needs money to do it. I don’t expect everyone to help with that, but I will.

And no matter what, I will continue to struggle with takeouts on the edges of the house, and I will continue to have trouble sliding around to get back to a hack after delivering a stone. But I’m going to have fun.

The NWSL, USA Curling and the dangers of inadequate investigations

The accusations of abuse in the NWSL deserved a professional, thorough investigation.

They got that. It’s the Yates Report.

A second report, commissioned by the NWSL and the NWSL Players Association, has some utility. It is, however, flawed in multiple places. 

In some cases, dangerously flawed.

As usual, the media reporting on the situation doesn’t help. Everyone from accused sexual predators to coaches who apparently yelled at players are lumped together under the heading “abuse.” 

The nuances are important here, and to the investigators’ credit, they ask the powers that be to consider what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable moving forward. The NWSL doesn’t want any Bobby Knights, nor should it. Players and staff will have to decide if they would abide by a Mike Krzyzewski or even an Anson Dorrance. (“Lost control of her bowels” is a disturbing phrase to describe a fitness test, and “mess with us mentally to pick out who were the weaklings” is a phrase that might have raised a yellow or red flag for the investigators.) 

That discussion is all well and good. It’s clear from the report that players have different levels of what they consider “abuse,” and it’s something they should be able to talk through. Absolutely.

Unfortunately, in other areas, the bad guys are predetermined, and the conclusions aren’t always justified.

Consider this bewildering passage concerning Rory Dames. To be sure, there’s no defending his behavior as described here and in the Yates Report unless everyone else involved is lying. But then we get to things like this: “Dames told the investigator that he revoked the media credentials of a player’s boyfriend because he concluded that the boyfriend’s presence was “not positive” based on a conversation with a USWNT coach.” 

This point is raised because the NWSL/NWSLPA investigators want to take a US Soccer investigator down a notch for failing to follow up on this “explanation as to the treatment of this player.”

The NWSL/NWSLPA investigators do not, however, take issue with the fact that a player’s boyfriend has a media credential.

Note to journalists: If you start dating a player on a sports team, stop covering that team.

The “guilty until proven innocent — and even then, still guilty” approach isn’t surprising in a sport that holds strict adherence to The Narrative. Players are always right. The lawyers they hired are always right, which is why they get millions of dollars after losing in court. Coaches who cross them — whether they’re perceived as abusive or whether they pull a Tom Sermanni and start tinkering with the lineup — are always wrong. Referees are always wrong. Everyone who has ever worked for the league is wrong. Everyone who was interested in women’s soccer before everyone else got interested in women’s soccer from 2011 onward is wrong.

What’s more disturbing is that the investigators have some fundamental misunderstandings of how to fight abuse. We’ll get to that.

But first, let’s see how someone’s career has been shredded over flimsy, out-of-context conclusions and months waiting in limbo.

James Clarkson

Here are some of the complaints against former Houston Dash coach James Clarkson, who was temporarily suspended for what turned out to be an entire season and will not have his contract renewed.

  • “(A)nother said she felt under the microscope based on the position she played and feared she would be cut from the team.” Well, yeah. It’s professional sports. Ask NFL players about their job security.
  • The coach thought some players had been drinking the night before a preseason game and that they were hung over. Players deny it. They didn’t deny being out at dinner with a player from the other team until midnight when they had a 6 a.m. wake-up call, or that one of those players became ill.
  • A player told a member of the coaching staff but not Clarkson that an injury was bothering her, but she decided to dress because she figured she wouldn’t play. Clarkson, figuring she was fit, put her in the game. She went in and then asked to come out. Clarkson got mad about this, and reports differ on whether he dropped an f-bomb. This is all somehow Clarkson’s fault. (A player who witnessed the incident also said Clarkson later admitted he could’ve handled the situation differently.)

Another note about the last one. On page 71, the report says, “Accounts differ about what happened next.” A player says she doesn’t recall the specific words. On page 104, things are suddenly more certain: “Clarkson denied making this comment, but witnesses corroborated that Clarkson was visibly upset and frustrated at the player, and that the player was upset.”

There’s another passage that paints Clarkson as being a tad racist even though the evidence within that paragraph offers an alternate explanation. Dash player Sarah Gorden, who is Black, said her boyfriend was followed closely by stadium security and told he’d be arrested if he got too close to the team, while white players had freedom to talk with their families. (That’s pretty bad, and we have to hope the team addressed it.) Clarkson asked players to write apologies to stadium security. But upon further investigation, it turns out Clarkson sought those apologies not because Gorden criticized security but because the team had violated COVID-19 protocols. 

“But some players and club staff described that Clarkson seemed to defend stadium security, and players and club staff expressed disappointment at Clarkson’s and the club’s failure to attempt to understand the Black players’ perspective. On the other hand, some thought Clarkson handled the situation well and reported that he later expressed his support and apologized if he had appeared insensitive.” 

So are the players who reported Clarkson’s support … lying? And the others aren’t? Or, as seems most likely and supported by the evidence, players and staff were disappointed at first but talked through it to clear up any misunderstanding and got assurance of his support?

This incident is lumped together under “Offensive and Insensitive Behavior Related to Race and Ethnicity,” along with accusations that former Washington Spirit coach Richie Burke used the N-word, asked if he should sing the “Black version” or “white version” of Happy Birthday, and compared the team’s poor play to the Holocaust, for which his defense was that he didn’t know there were Jewish players on the team.

Overall, the Joint Investigative Team found that Clarkson committed emotional misconduct.

That’s despite this line: “A majority of players expressed the view that Clarkson’s treatment of players did not rise to the level of abuse or misconduct.”

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson asking for a mental health program to support his players.

That’s despite, as the report notes, Clarkson agreeing that the head coach and general manager should not be the same person.

If you want to fire Clarkson, fire him. Coaches sometimes aren’t that right fit. That’s fine.

But now Clarkson’s name sits alongside that of accused sexual predators and people who don’t seem to care that they use actual racial epithets. His chances of getting another job at this level are surely diminished.

Little wonder he’s fighting back.

It would’ve been far fairer to Clarkson to have fired him months ago. Instead, he was left to twist in the wind for months, only to have his name smeared by trumped-up claims of abuse.

SafeSport and reporting

At the end of a long report detailing how the NWSL and US Soccer failed to investigate NWSL abuse issues, the investigators come up with several recommendations that the NWSL and US Soccer should continue to investigate NWSL abuse issues. 

The investigators urge the league to follow through on its 2022 Anti-Harassment Policy to make sure each club has two people, one of which is neither the Board of Governors representative nor the head coach, whose job is to receive reports of potential violations. 

Those people are then responsible for reporting these issues to the NWSL. 

Ever work in an office in which someone’s sole job is to sit in a swivel chair and relay things from a lower rung of the org chart to a higher rung? 

That part is kind of funny. The next part isn’t. 

The investigators charge the NWSL with sufficiently staffing its HR and Legal departments to investigate “all complaints of misconduct.”

This is, at best, a bad idea. At worst, it’s illegal.

The US Center for SafeSport, established by federal law (what, you haven’t memorized the Ted Stevens Act yet?), has a SafeSport Code that lists the allegations for which the Center has exclusive jurisdiction (all sexual misconduct, criminal charges of child abuse, various failures to report, etc.) or discretionary jurisdiction (non-sexual child abuse, emotional and physical misconduct, criminal charges not involving sexual misconduct or child abuse, other failures to abide by the Code). 

From that Code: “When the relevant organization has reason to believe that the allegations presented fall within the Center’s exclusive jurisdiction, the organization—while able to impose measures—may not investigate or resolve those allegations.”

Continuing: “When the allegations presented fall within the Center’s discretionary jurisdiction, the organization may investigate and resolve the matter, unless and until such time as the Center expressly exercises jurisdiction over the particular allegations.”

Back to the NWSL/NWSLPA report: There’s a claim that “SafeSport only has jurisdiction over reports concerning NWSL coaches or staff who hold U.S. Soccer coaching licenses.” I wonder if that would hold up under scrutiny. 

And in that same paragraph: “Many players who spoke with the Joint Investigative Team were not aware that they could report concerns about misconduct to SafeSport. Some within the NWSL held the misconception that SafeSport deals with misconduct against youth athletes and does not investigate misconduct against professional athletes.”

That sounds like a misconception that should be changed. And it may be difficult to do so when we have a report commissioned by the NWSL and NWSLPA that urges the NWSL and its clubs to take the lead.

The Center has had a wobbly start. But it’s just that — a start. The Center is supposed to be like the US Anti-Doping Agency, taking leagues and NGBs out of the business of policing themselves when it comes to drugs. Between the NWSL cases and the horrors of USA Gymnastics, we’ve surely seen enough to know that we need something similar in the realm of abuse as well.

And at the very least, any allegations like the ones against Paul Riley should go to SafeSport. Not someone on the small staff of a professional women’s soccer club.

Finally, let’s consider a recent test case in which the Joint Investigative Team of this NWSL/NWSLPA report investigated something new:  

From the report: “In October 2022, the Joint Investigative Team received a report that then-Thorns Head Coach Rhian Wilkinson had disclosed to the Thorns’s HR director potentially inappropriate interactions with a player with whom she had formed a friendship. The Joint Investigative Team promptly conducted a thorough investigation and, based on the evidence, found that Wilkinson did not engage in wrongdoing or violate the Anti-Harassment Policy. On November 4, 2022, these findings were conveyed to the NWSL, NWSLPA, Thorns, Wilkinson, and the player involved. Out of respect for player privacy, this Report does not provide a detailed account of the evidence or findings in this and other instances where the Joint Investigative Team determined no misconduct occurred.” 

A few pages later: “The NWSL’s Non-Fraternization Policy, adopted in 2018, states: “No person in management or a supervisory position with a Team or the League shall have a romantic or dating relationship with a League or team employee whom he or she directly supervises or whose terms or conditions of employment he or she may influence.” The Joint Investigative Team found multiple instances of romantic relationships between players and staff members in violation of this policy.” 

In her resignation letter, Wilkinson said she and the player had expressed their feelings to each other but stopped it there and went to HR. But other players on the team took issue with the Joint Investigative Team’s work and expressed some misgivings about the whole chain of command:

That letter isn’t mentioned in the report, even though it’s dated November 20, and the report references at least one event from as recently as December 1. Maybe the league didn’t hand it over to the Team?

All of the people involved here are human. NWSL players are human. Lawyers are human. Investigators are human. Coaches are human. We all make mistakes. 

What we need is a system that minimizes those mistakes and operates with a clear-headed passion to find the truth while treating everyone — accusers, accused, and those around them — as humans.

Jeff Plush

For my fellow curlers, here’s a quick summary of our former CEO’s appearances in various investigations:

The Yates Report, with which Plush did not cooperate, shows that Plush did a bit to hinder Paul Riley’s future employment within the NWSL after allegations of sexual misconduct were reported. See previous post.

The NWSL/NWSLPA report shows that Plush did a bit more than was reported in the Yates Report, and it says the league failed to act despite Plush’s warnings. However, the NWSL/NWSLPA report relies mostly on one source — Plush, who did cooperate with this one.

Still, the report raises one red flag, and it seems well-substantiated: “Plush told the Joint Investigative Team that the Flash had been considering Riley since October 2015, and Plush warned Lines in October 2015 that the Flash should not hire Riley but should follow up with the Thorns as to why Riley was “no longer coaching there.” Plush wrote that he was “very careful in describing the situation” with Riley because he had been informed by counsel to U.S. Soccer that he could not share the Thorns’s investigative report or its details. However, this position appears inconsistent with the email from the Thorns’s counsel transmitting the Riley report to the League, which Plush received and which did not place any restrictions on the League.”

But the main verdict on Plush is rendered on page 111, and it’s complicated. Plush says he was limited in what he could say about Riley on advice of counsel. The investigators say that’s inconsistent with email from the Thorns counsel and the fact that Plush shared some information with Sky Blue, the New Jersey team that backed away from pursuing Riley. Was it “inconsistent,” or did the advice from counsel come into play after the Thorns email and the Sky Blue conversation?

The bottom line may be how you interpret this final line in his entry on page 111: “By allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL, the League conveyed its continuing implicit approval of him, despite the information Plush received and the concerns that he expressed to others.” 

Some people with whom I’ve talked are interpreting “the League” as “Plush.” I don’t think that’s the case, in part because of the “despite” clause and in part because so many other people wielded at least as much power as Plush did. And Riley continued to coach long after Plush was gone. 

On the whole, Plush comes across as someone who is too happy to take bad legal advice. That comes up again in the two investigations USA Curling released today. Feel free to ignore the first one, which is only two pages and is essentially a record of the investigator’s inability to get a word with anyone from US Soccer or the NWSL except for one anonymous comment: “Jeff did absolutely nothing wrong in how it was handled.”

The second investigation isn’t much better. It has four interviews — Plush, USA Curling CFO and former USSF/NWSL CFO Eric Gleason, an NWSL team owner, and someone who was a US Soccer official in 2015. 

Plush confirms that he didn’t cooperate with the Yates Report on the advice of counsel, and he now recognizes that maybe he should’ve done it anyway. That raises the question of why the Yates Report doesn’t mention him at least saying he had been advised not to cooperate, and it raises the question of why he went along with the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation.

The rest of the USAC investigation casts Plush as a mostly powerless figure, beholden to lawyers and USSF officials, who did what little he could to stop Riley from being hired at an NWSL team. I covered women’s soccer during that time (and many years before and after), and I know there’s a lot of truth in this depiction. But at best, Plush is following various lawyers over a cliff. A good leader should know better.

Other than that, the investigation is flimsy. The only interviews are with Plush and people sympathetic to him. 

To recap what’s happened since then: Plush resigned, as did the board chair and two other board members.

And the new management isn’t pleased with these investigations:

“It was important to engage a third-party to do this work, but the quality of these reports does not rise to the level that the Board and the curling community deserved,” noted USA Curling Board Chair Bret Jackson. “As a result, we will conduct an audit of our internal process, and learn how we can be better in the future.”

So what does this mean for USA Curling moving forward? 

In social media, a few people want to see the rest of the board resign as well. I’ll disagree for two reasons: 

First, the decision to keep Plush (before he resigned) doesn’t appear to be unanimous. Three days after the board announced he was sticking around, the Athletes Advisory Council issued a carefully worded statement that left the door open for further consideration. Plush resigned 12 days later, closely followed by the board chair and independent directors. It’s fair to say they didn’t just find a burning bush that told them to change their ways. Someone gave them a push behind the scenes.

Second, it’s easy to see how board members could have been misled into thinking Plush did nothing wrong. When an investigator hands over interviews with top soccer people defending him, it’s all too tempting to take that as face value. Failing to see beyond the investigator’s report is a mistake, not an act of malice. And in a sense, the investigator and the interviewees were right. He did “nothing wrong.” It’s just that, after a certain point in the timeline, he did nothing at all. It takes a bit more digging to realize his inaction was based on an unwillingness to stand up to people giving him bad advice. 

So the top officials at USA Curling are gone. The new board chair and interim CEO have thrown open the discussion to see how USAC could do things better.

A National Governing Body (NGB) is vital to the success of any Olympic sport. In my next post, I’ll explain why that’s the case and why I’ll continue to be a USAC member even though I’m hardly national championship material.

Grant Wahl: 1974-2022

The first time I met Grant Wahl was at an MLS playoff game in Kansas City in 2000. He was there because it was near his family in Kansas. I was there because I had a choice of games to cover and chose that one.

As the game meandered back and forth before a small crowd scattered in Arrowhead Stadium, Grant turned to me and said, “Are you sure you chose the right game?”

Grant got soccer. He understood the rhythms of the game and of its supporters. We’re a bantering bunch, sometimes cantankerous. He could disagree without being disagreeable. He had the acerbic wit we journalists strive to maintain, but he never drifted off into cynicism.

I didn’t always agree with his analysis for one simple reason. We’re soccer journalists. We don’t agree with each other 100% of the time.

But I enjoyed his company 100% of the time. The memory that has been in my mind today is of traveling at the 2008 Olympics and wandering around a distant stadium a few hours before game time. I have two memorable photos from that day. First, he and I marveled at a bunch of fish in some sort of feeding frenzy.

Second, he took what is, to this day, my favorite photo of myself.

I’m not showing this picture out of vanity. I think he simply composed it perfectly.

After that game, I had the Big Olympics Travel Misadventure that resulted in me taking a standing-room-only overnight train back to Beijing. He, of course, was nestled nicely in a hotel in Qinhuangdao. That was emblematic of the difference between Sports Illustrated and USA TODAY. He also reminded me of the difference in our publications at a media availability later in the Olympics in which he asked me to give him space to do a one-on-one chat with Hope Solo. He was working on a magazine feature-length piece, and USA TODAY was going to give me a tiny space in which to summarize everything.

I would have been mad if not for two things. First, he was right. USA TODAY was still in its milquetoast days, cranking out brief content for hotel-goers nationwide. Second, he was so damn nice. He had gone out of his way to tell me I was one of the people in soccer journalism who knew what I was talking about, praise that I still cherish.

And though his magazine, boasting a formidable 1-2 combo with him and Brian Straus, was more glamorous than USA TODAY, he and I bonded over our status as soccer writers before the “soccer writer” job existed. We had other responsibilities. He was a great basketball writer, too. We had to push for more soccer coverage, not just so we could focus on the sport we loved but because we felt the sport we loved deserved more love.

This may sound like Grumpy Old Man talk here. But this gets to why yesterday’s news is so shocking. Grant wasn’t old. He wasn’t even 50. I’ve written my share of remembrances — my mother (well after the fact, because she didn’t live long enough to see the internet), my father, my dog, my music teacher, Duke’s jazz ensemble director, Duke’s Wind Symphony director (aged 101), etc. I was in tears when I wrote one for my stepmom because she was too young, and I had just attended a memorial service that reminded me what she meant in my hometown.

The only time I’ve written one for someone younger than I am was the one for USA TODAY’s Dave Teeuwen, and that was mostly one anecdote that hopefully captured his spirit a little bit. Dave’s death was tragic but less of a surprise. He had dealt with cancer for several years and had defied his doctors by continuing to live.

The only time I’ve written one for someone whose passing came from out of the blue was for Dan Borislow, whose complexities I attempted to capture. As I said in the opening, I couldn’t make sense of his sudden death, and I still expected him to text me to gripe about the media.

In Grant’s case, I keep thinking that I should send him a message to express my sympathy. I can’t process that the fact that he can’t answer. When my wife came running up to say, “Grant Wahl died,” I heard what she said but couldn’t understand those three words in that order.

I try to make these things positive and uplifting. This one is difficult. I hope I’ve captured a bit of his spirit. As easygoing as he was, he could also be tenacious, as exemplified best in the last days of his life when he stood up to the discrimination and cruelties of Qatar.

As ridiculous as it is to hold a World Cup in Qatar, he couldn’t miss it. But in a just world, he would’ve seen the next one, and the next one and many more after that.

Instead, in all of these World Cups, we’ll be the ones missing out. We’ll be missing him.

USA Curling flings one through the house

If you’ve read a lot of my writing over the years, you know that I’m the opposite of a knee-jerk institution-basher. I’ve never had a lot of patience for lazy opinion writing that follows this pattern:

  1. Something is wrong.
  2. The (organization/government/referee) needs to fix it.
  3. Time for lunch.

Call it “The Narrative.” The Institution is always oppressing The Insurgent. It’s often valid, and the best journalism exposes the abuses that stem from power imbalances.

In sports, The Narrative has gone off the rails. In a typical conflict of labor vs. management, most people avoid “punching down,” siding instead with labor. In soccer, especially women’s soccer players in the “equal pay” dispute, The Narrative is that players are always right and everyone else is wrong. The purveyors of this narrative don’t grasp the nuance or think about which direction is “punching down.” They don’t realize the US national teams — men as well as women — are actually siphoning resources that would be better spent building up the next generations, lest the men fall further behind and the decline in women’s youth teams turns into a championship drought that stops a star-making machine in its tracks. They also side with players who mock and flip off referees, who aren’t exactly wealthy fat cats oppressing the poor players.

But when it comes to the abuse issues detailed in the Yates Report, there’s no question that the players deserve sympathy — and a whole lot more. Like all too many sports (see swimming’s “what do you mean we can’t date the swimmers we coach?” attitude if you want to shake your head; see what happened in gymnastics if you want to be sick to your stomach), soccer needs institutional and cultural changes.

And that leads us to Jeff Plush, former National Women’s Soccer League commissioner and current (as of this writing) CEO of USA Curling.

If you’ve gone beyond the superficial reporting and opinion pieces in the media and read the full text of the Yates Report on sexual misconduct in the NWSL, you’ve noticed that Plush comes across a bit better than some of the people around him. If you’ve followed the NWSL, you know that Plush was part of a league office that operated on a shoestring budget.

So Plush could make plausible excuses for the fact that Paul Riley was able to gain other employment after being terminated by the Portland Thorns. The Thorns, the best-supported team in the league for years, did their own investigation that led to Riley being pushed out but may not have justified any other punishment. Plush’s underfunded league didn’t have a lot of resources to go any further. Plush still sounded the alarm a few times while Riley was seeking other employment with other NWSL clubs, and he and general counsel Lisa Levine shared some details with another club that then decided not to hire Riley.

But then what happened? In the Yates Report, Plush’s emails of concern fade from the story at this point, and Riley wound up employed again.

Again, Plush might have a plausible answer for this. Did the risk-averse lawyers at US Soccer and the NWSL (neither of them still in their jobs) advise him that he couldn’t torpedo Riley’s career any more than he already had?

We’ll never know.

Why?

Because he didn’t cooperate with the investigation.

You would think this refusal would be of grave concern to USA Curling, where Plush is still a relatively new CEO, especially given the fact that much of his tenure has taken place in the shadow of a pandemic.

Instead … well, consider an analogy. Remember when allegedly moderate Republican senator Susan Collins defended her vote in Donald Trump’s first impeachment by saying the then-president had learned his lesson and surely wouldn’t repeat those mistakes? That’s basically what USA Curling’s board did.

Like Collins, USA Curling’s board thinks Plush has learned his lesson.

“(T)he Board is encouraged by Jeff’s willingness to fully cooperate in the ongoing NWSL and its Players Association investigation,” according to a USA Curling statement that has landed in the curling community with a thud.

So he didn’t respond to Yates, who was investigating at the behest of US Soccer. But he’ll do it this time?

The statement says the board “called a special session and immediately commissioned an investigation.” It does not say whom they commissioned or how that group digested a lengthy report and conducted a follow-up probe in record time.

Sure, some investigations can drag on too long. To go back to women’s soccer a bit — Houston Dash coach James Clarkson has spent six months in limbo over a supposed investigation over a supposed case of unspecified abuse (a term taken to mean everything from disgusting acts of sexual harassment to temper tantrums), and again, The Narrative of “players good, authority figures bad” dictates that no one can question why glaciers move and melt faster than this investigation has moved.

But one of the lessons from the Yates Report is that complex questions deserve more than a cursory check. And if Plush really did answer the looming questions to the Board’s satisfaction, it would be nice to hear those answers.

Plush was already in trouble because of the conflict with the Grand National Curling Club, a regional affiliate of USA Curling that governs the entire East Coast. In that case, he’s not entirely wrong, and The Narrative strikes again here by positing the GNCC as an oppressed angelic underdog. The situation is nuanced, and Buffalo Springfield put it best: “Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong.” But Plush and the USA Curling board/executives have been heavy-handed and opaque.

Curling is the friendliest sport I know. I spent much of my weekend at Potomac Curling Club’s Glitter Bombspiel, which has an LGBTQ+ theme and is so effective at creating a supportive environment that some participants were close to tears.

And the curling community is indeed united.

Against its national governing body.

And for once, I can offer no defense of The Institution. In this case, The Narrative is accurate and apt.

A petition to remove Plush now has the support of more than 500 people, including many high-level athletes. I don’t fully support every point raised — I think SafeSport cases are better discussed with the Center for SafeSport, another flawed institution and one that came along after Plush’s tenure with the NWSL. And as a journalist who still skews toward analysis rather than opinion, I generally don’t take part is this sort of activism. But in this case, well, here’s the letter, and here’s the link to sign.

How a sprawling US Soccer investigation affects USA Curling

Some time ago, in the in-fighting between USA Curling and the GNCC, GNCC officials asked for USA Curling CEO Jeff Plush to be set aside from the proceedings while everyone awaited results of investigations into sexual misconduct allegations involving National Women’s Soccer League coaches during his tenure as that league’s commissioner.

At the time, that suggestion was a bit premature. There was little reason to think Plush did anything other than fail to investigate claims any more than he could at the time, given the lack of resources at an underfunded NWSL office. The US Center for SafeSport was officially launched, by complete coincidence, the month he left the NWSL (March 2017).

Now that a two-year investigation has yielded a 319-page report, is there anything in Plush’s tenure that should cause USA Curling any concern? Or maybe the hiring of CFO Eric Gleason, who is also mentioned a couple of times in this report?

Here are the 39 mentions of Plush in the report, with my annotations in italics …

p. 10: “Certain witnesses—including the former Commissioner of the NWSL, Jeff Plush—never responded to our outreach.”

I had figured Plush might not be willing to speak on advice on counsel. But I think this report would have said whether he had given them such a response. Instead, it says “never responded.”

The first case of note here

PAUL RILEY

p. 15: “The following year, in 2015, Meleana Shim emailed the Portland Thorns’ front office and Jeff Plush, NWSL Commissioner, reporting Riley’s persistent and unwanted advances and his retaliation against her when she asked him to stop. Plush shared Shim’s email with USSF leadership.”

Meleana Shim is also known as Mana Shim, and her accusations in a story in The Athletic were a bombshell that led to former Thorns coach Paul Riley — until then, one of the most respected coaches in youth and pro women’s soccer — being fired as coach of the North Carolina Courage.

These revelations led me to write a piece about whether those of us in the media at the time — primarily cis hetero men — should have known. The tl;dr — I wish players would have felt comfortable telling people like me rather than waiting a few years and speaking, but I fully understand if they were more comfortable speaking with people who weren’t middle-aged cis hetero men.

The Thorns let Riley go but said nothing about the charges at the time. His record with the team was mildly disappointing, so letting him go didn’t raise any eyebrows.

p. 15: “Within a few months of being terminated from the Thorns, in early 2016, Riley was coaching again in the NWSL, this time at the Western New York Flash (“WNY Flash” or “the Flash”). In an email to Gulati, Flynn, and Levine, Plush conveyed his understanding that Gavin Wilkinson (Thorns General Manager) told the Flash that Riley was “put in a bad position by the player,” and that Wilkinson would “hire [Riley] in a heartbeat.” Although Plush, Gulati, Flynn, and Levine all had received Shim’s detailed complaint—and Plush and Levine received the 2015 Thorns Report—none appeared to provide the Flash with additional information.”

The Flash would later move to North Carolina to become the Courage.

This seems to reflect more poorly on Wilkinson than it does on Plush, but it does raise a question of the role of a commissioner in making sure teams are apprised of such things.

p. 30: “Jeff Plush, former Commissioner of the League, and B.J. Snow, former Head Coach of the U-23 National Team and Director of Talent Identification for the National Team, did not respond to our repeated outreach.”

In case you missed it before.

p. 43: “In 2016, NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush and Levine took initial steps to devise a set of workplace policies, including an anti-harassment policy, and engaged an external firm to provide initial drafts.”

The report goes on to state there’s no evidence this was ever distributed beyond the front office of the NWSL and NWSL Media in 2017. Reminder: Plush left in 2017. Lisa Levine, the longtime NWSL general counsel, left under pressure in 2021.

p. 71-72 (detailing the Shim complaint in September 2015): “Shim forwarded her email complaint to NWSL Commissioner Jeff Plush a few hours after sending. Within minutes of receiving the email, Plush forwarded it to Levine, commenting: “See below. Not good.” An hour later, Plush forwarded the complaint to Gulati and Flynn; the following day, he forwarded it to USSF CFO Eric Gleason. All agreed it was important to monitor the situation. Plush spoke with the Thorns (with Paulson) the evening he received the complaint, and the following morning (with Wilkinson). Plush emailed Paulson: ‘“Let’s stay in close communication going forward.'”

Gulati is longtime USSF president Sunil Gulati. Flynn is longtime USSF CEO Dan Flynn. They’re no longer in those positions. Flynn retired. Gulati left soon after the US men’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup led to a plethora of candidates for the presidential election a few months later. Paulson is Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers (MLS) and Thorns (NWSL). His father is former Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson.

p. 76: “On September 22, 2015, the day before Riley was terminated from Portland, Sky Blue expressed interest in hiring him. When Paulson informed Wilkinson that Sky Blue had reached out to Mike Golub to ask to interview Riley, Paulson responded: “Good and thanks.” That same day, Plush (NWSL) emailed Dan Flynn (USSF), Sunil Gulati (USSF), and Lisa Levine (USSF) regarding “Coaching Updates,” and noted that the Sky Blue General Manager, Tony Novo, had asked about approaching Riley. Plush noted, “[o]bviously [Riley’s] situation is [] complicated.” Gulati responded, “Let’s make sure we are up to speed on how the Portland situation is being handled/investigated.”

Sky Blue is now NJ/NY Gotham FC. I don’t make these names.

p. 77: “After Riley was terminated, Plush and Levine discussed the need to inform Sky Blue about the reasons for Riley’s termination. Levine’s notes from the call reflect that a player had “alleged sexual harassment against Riley,” as well as the investigation’s conclusion that Riley had “engaged in inappropriate conduct” and “violated [a] directive to maintain professional distance from players.” That day, Levine called Novo, and shared this “confidential” information. According to Levine’s notes, Novo stated that he “think[s] this changes direction for us,” and would not share this information beyond his club’s ownership.”

It’ll be interesting to see how this differs from Western New York’s hiring process.

p. 78: “On February 16, 2016, Plush emailed Gulati (USSF), Flynn (USSF) and Levine (USSF), stating, “Western New York will announce Paul Riley as head coach on Friday. Not good news.” Plush explained that he gave the Thorns President’s phone number to the WNY Flash General Manager (Rich Randall) and that his “guess is that Gavin [Wilkinson] helped Paul with Aaron [sic] Lines.” Gulati responded, “we need to discuss.”

Side note: Aaran (the correct spelling) Lines is the former Flash coach who moved into an executive job. While with the Flash, he coached his wife, Alex Sahlen, who is the daughter of then-Flash owner Joe Sahlen. It was an unusual situation but not THAT unusual — plenty of women’s soccer players married coaches. In this case, I know of no complaints from Flash players about the situation.

p. 78-79 (cont.): “On February 19, 2016, the WNY Flash publicly announced Riley as the newest Head Coach. That same day, Plush followed up with the group of USSF executives to report on his discussion with WNY Flash Vice President Lines. Plush explained that Lines had “spoken in depth” with Thorns General Manager Wilkinson who “specifically brought up the ‘human resource issue.’ Gavin [Wilkinson] told [Lines] that he felt Paul ‘was put in a bad position by the player’ and he ‘would hire him in a heartbeat.’” Plush further wrote that “Aaran [Lines] spoke directly with Paul about the situation and Paul said ‘I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation.’ Aaran specifically told him he can not [sic] allow that the of [sic] situation to happen again. They are very comfortable with the situation at this point.”

Wilkinson was suspended from his duties in the wake of the Riley allegations going public but was reinstated when an investigation by DLA Piper turned up no wrongdoing. We’ll see if he keeps his job now.

p. 79 (cont.) “Besides this conversation between Plush and Lines, it does not appear that anyone from the League or the Federation communicated directly with WNY Flash regarding their hire of Riley. Levine noted that she did not recall any requests to provide the 2015 Thorns Report to the WNY Flash, or any consideration that this might be important. (Indeed, she could not recall if it came up or crossed her mind to share the 2015 Thorns Report outside of USSF or NWSL at any point.) Levine did not believe NWSL Commissioner Plush shared the 2015 Thorns Report externally, which she stated was not the responsibility of the League or USSF. Gulati and Flynn both do not recall speaking with anyone at the WNY Flash regarding Riley.”

I’d like to see a definition of “externally.”

p. 79-80: “No further action was taken regarding Riley’s hire. As Levine recalled, the League’s and USSF’s collective view at that time was that their role in coach hiring was limited. (“Club staff was club staff.”) Dan Flynn (USSF CEO), however, responded to the chain: “didn’t we discuss the need for a league policy and training?” Plush confirmed there was a prior conversation, and later that month Levine began compiling anti-fraternization and anti-nepotism policies from other professional sports leagues for use in the NWSL.”

Here’s where your opinion of Plush’s actions or inactions may vary. Should he have taken a bolder stance at this point? Or, given his general counsel’s laissez-faire attitude and no further action from US Soccer, did he feel he had little power to act?

I’ll say, from my experience covering the league, that I don’t think the commissioner had a ton of power. The league was still under the USSF thumb at this point, and it wasn’t exactly swimming in sponsorship money that would help it build a more robust front office. (It has more money now, and still, the public relations staffs throughout the league aren’t really dynamos.)

p. 82: “Johnson also spoke to NWSL Commissioner Plush early in the process. According to Johnson, Plush (like Flynn) focused on an ongoing issue Riley had with referees that might lead to a “likely” suspension.”

Johnson is North Carolina Courage president Curt Johnson, a veteran soccer executive.

Plush focusing on referees is … certainly bad optics. Maybe he could have addressed that if he had spoken with the investigators.

p. 82: Passing mention of Plush passing along a phone number that shouldn’t be some sort of secret. Both of the people are NWSL team executives.

p. 83: “Malik stated he followed up with Plush to request a copy of the report that allegedly “cleared” Riley. Malik’s best recollection was that Plush either demurred that he would look into it or declined to share the 2015 Thorns Report in light of confidentiality issues.”

p. 83: “Duffy, too, recalled discussions in 2017 with Paulson, Flynn, Gulati, and
Plush about whether to share the 2015 Thorns Report with Malik.”

Duffy is Amanda Duffy, then the NWSL Managing Director of Operations and de facto boss after Plush left. She’s a highly respected veteran of several leagues and clubs.

p. 93: “In her interview with this investigation, Levine stated that she did not understand why these players were reaching out again about events from 2015. Specifically, Levine said that Shim and Farrelly had been given the opportunity then to speak with the Commissioner (then Plush).”

Again, Levine was forced out years later.

Second case …

RORY DAMES

Another coach who, until allegations were made public, was considered one of the best in the business. Players raved about him, as they did about Riley. In November 2021, a sports psychologist said Dames had “created a culture of fear and engaged in emotional and verbal abuse which is psychologically and emotionally harmful to players and staff.”

Some concerns had been raised years before.

p. 117: “A few months later, on February 25, 2015, Bailey forwarded internally at NWSL (to Jeff Plush, Commissioner) her October 2, 2014 email to Whisler.”

Not much context to add here.

p. 118: “On November 13, 2015, Jeff Plush (NWSL Commissioner) emailed Jay Berhalter (USSF CCO), Jill Ellis (National Team Head Coach), and Dan Flynn (USSF CEO) the 2015 NWSL Player Survey results. Plush stated, “The comments section provides the most specific information . . . some is quite disturbing . . . .””

And that’s about it. The other mentions are in a footnote.

So Plush knew about the accusations about Riley and Dames. He made sure other people knew. Should he have done more?

It’d be nice if he would address the question.

The USA Curling breakdown

I hadn’t planned to write anything about USA Curling outside Reddit, but I think it’s important to clear up a few things and reframe some of the discussion.

Let’s start with this. The following two things can be true, and they are true:

  1. USA Curling has every right to insist that its regional associations admit only USA Curling member clubs.
  2. USA Curling is likely violating its own bylaws, along with the USOPC’s bylaws and maybe even Wisconsin statutes, and souring its relationships with the curling community in the way it is pursuing the GNCC matter.

More detail …

USA Curling’s regional associations

One argument from GNCC and its backers is that one nonprofit can’t tell another to change its bylaws. Specifically, USA Curling can’t tell GNCC to kick out members who aren’t paying dues to USAC.

OK. But then GNCC can’t tell USAC to change its bylaws. Specifically, GNCC can’t tell USAC to accept it as the regional association of the national governing body.

Think of it this way. If you’re running the United Way, you can’t tell a specific charity how to keep its books — unless that charity wants to be part of the United Way.

Back in the realm of Olympic sports, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC, formerly USOC) is under pressure from Congress to have tighter control of things from the top down. USA Curling is beholden to the USOPC, which threatened it with decertification a few years ago because the national teams weren’t doing well enough, and it has a big audit coming up.

So USA Curling has every right, if not an outright responsibility, to demand that its regional associations toe the line. A lot of people in the GNCC orbit simply don’t get this.

Now here’s the problem for USA Curling (first, the legal part) …

USA Curling bylaws

First point: USA Curling is absolutely in the wrong when it comes to voting rights.

Potomac Curling Club (my club, but I’m not involved with this) has asserted that clubs do not need to leave GNCC and declare themselves “At-Large” to protect their votes in the upcoming Members Assembly, where USAC’s move to expel GNCC needs two-thirds approval and clearly will not get it without some shenanigans.

Another simple citation here from USCA Bylaws, Section 10.4. – Member’s Vote: Regional Curling Associations, At-Large Clubs, and Member Clubs which are Members of USA Curling in good standing shall be entitled to vote at the meeting of the Members’ Assembly in accordance with USA Curling policy.

Mediate, alleviate, arbitrate …

Where was I? Oh, right. Not listening to an INXS single from back in the day.

Joe Calabrese writes, and I’ve heard from elsewhere, that USAC rejected the idea of an independent mediator.

There’s a difference, of course, between mediation and arbitration. In the latter, USAC won’t have a choice. USOPC bylaws make that quite clear, and if it somehow doesn’t come up with the current fiasco, it will come up when an athlete from a club that has left the inner circle isn’t allowed to play in a national championship. Or when clubs move to decertify USA Curling.

Now or later?

As explained above, USA Curling can demand that GNCC expel members who aren’t USAC members.

But can USA Curling’s board and staff demand GNCC’s ouster now?

I think not.

In December 2020, a special Members Assembly approved Bylaw 5.0, a temporary amnesty on dues for clubs that had shut down during COVID.

The policy outlining why GNCC is facing the boot is USCA Policy 21-08 (5.d.i): “The date of compliance shall be January 31st of the current year using the final membership numbers provided by USA Curling.”

But given the one-year amnesty, dues were only in arrears as of Jan. 31, 2022, not 2021. USCA Policy 21-08 (5.d.ii) states that punishment kicks in one year later. That would be Jan. 31, 2023. In fact, you could make an argument under USCA Policy 21-08 (5.d.iii) that the Regional Association’s membership cannot be terminated until the end of the next fiscal year, which would be June 30, 2023.

So GNCC should have another year. (Disclaimer: Not a lawyer.)

The question: How would everyone use that extra year?

The way forward

There’s no evidence is anyone is really talking here. The point of the member uprising should be to change that.

And the discussion should center on answering these questions …

What are the roles of a national federation and a regional association?

I asked this on Reddit a month ago, noting that GNCC charges much more than Minnesota charges and also provides many more services. Great, if you’re taking advantage of those services. If you’re not, you (I) may be wondering why you’re paying so much to two organizations that haven’t sorted out who’s in charge of training, playdowns, insurance and whatnot.

Can USA Curling redefine “membership”?

A bylaw proposal from Orlando (with assistance from elsewhere) essentially eliminates club memberships in favor of individual memberships. Personally, I’m uneasy with this, in part because it makes voting an absolute ******. Like Joe Calabrese, I’d prefer a model akin to what USA Fencing does, offering a hybrid model of club and individual memberships. (I spelled it out in another long Reddit post.)

Either way, though, a discussion of what constitutes membership is worth having.

Can USA Curling regain enough trust to remind people of its importance?

As someone with more than a passing familiarity with international sports governance (hey, stay awake!), I’ve been frustrated that a lot of the discussion on the topic has compared GNCC with USA Curling. That’s apples and oranges. Or apples and bicycles. (In a Reddit post, I said “ice cream to concrete.”)

Did GNCC weather the COVID storm financially better than USA Curling? Sure. That’s because GNCC basically had no expenses. USA Curling has obligations that don’t go away.

And it’s important to have a strong national body. That’s how you effectively market the sport, a large chunk of USAC’s budget. That’s how you get your sport on TV, another large chunk of the budget. That’s how you can potentially build a grassroots foundation akin to the US Soccer Foundation, which was spun off from (and later sued over IP, but that’s another story) the US Soccer Federation. That’s how you make sure your sport is covered in SafeSport’s databases, and that’s how you build strong national teams from the grassroots up.

Hopefully, USA Curling will do a better job with the TV aspect of it and be more responsive to its members.

Then, hopefully, its members will rally around it.

The Timbers/Polo saga—what did we learn?

On June 3, 2021, a woman who wasn’t sure whether to pursue misdemeanor harassment charges against her husband sat in her home with two people pledging to help, along with a good friend who was serving as translator.

In an audio recording of the session, the two visitors come across as kind and compassionate, trying their best to solve her interconnected problems. She’s dependent on her husband financially and otherwise. She needs to get her kids to school. She wants to go to school herself and get a job. All of these things are difficult, and the visitors offer solutions.

Here’s the problem … 

The husband is Andy Polo, then a player for the Portland Timbers. The two visitors are Jim McCausland, a retired Portland police detective now serving as the Timbers’ director of security, and Christine Mascal, a lawyer retained by the Timbers to represent Polo. McCausland and Timbers executive Gabriel Jaimes also raced to Polo’s home May 23 while police were still on the scene gathering evidence, having been called to investigate a report of a man hitting a woman. 

Anyone who has listened to the June 3 recording would agree that the friend and translator is a saint. But she is not a lawyer. And she is not a social worker sitting there on behalf of a government agency.

So the advice Génessis Alarcón received for dealing with this dire predicament came from two people who, well-intended or not, were representing parties Alarcón would later sue — Polo and the Timbers.

The Timbers are free from that suit, thanks to an undisclosed settlement in late March. Polo, not the Timbers, is the primary target for Alarcón and her lawyers in the United States and Peru, where Polo returned after his dismissal from Portland in February. 

The club also won’t face any further punishment from MLS, which turned to Proskauer Rose to investigate the Timbers’ actions. The law firm, which counts MLS as a frequent client, said the team didn’t induce Alarcón to forgo pursuing charges. MLS fined the Timbers a pittance of $25,000 for not realizing they were supposed to report the Polo incident to the league under the MLS Constitution, as improbable as that seems for a club that employs a general counsel as well as an HR staff. 

But this isn’t going away so easily. 

Start with Madison Shanley, who has frequently sung the national anthem before Timbers for more than a decade and for their wildly popular NWSL team, the Portland Thorns, since the women’s league launched in 2013. On April 3, she sang while wearing a T-shirt with the message “YOU KNEW,” directed at the organization over its handling of the Polo incident and of the case of Paul Riley, the former Thorns coach who was allowed to leave the club and sign elsewhere without anyone revealing that he had been accused of abuse and inappropriate behavior. Last fall, two players came forward to accuse Riley of sexual coercion. 

Shanley has since said she won’t sing the anthem again until she’s satisfied the club has made solid institutional changes. At the Timbers’ April 22 home game, supporters made it clear that they support Shanley and not team management. 

The club did indeed release a list of changes, including community initiatives and anonymous reporting lines. Those changes, though, don’t address the circumstances that put the Timbers in such a terrible situation in the first place. 

Nor do we see any reason to believe the Timbers or any MLS club — for that matter, any employer anywhere — learned a lesson about when and when not to intervene when police show up at a player or employee’s home while a spouse or partner is pleading for help. And to understand why, we have to ask a few questions about the Proskauer Rose report, which reads more like a list of excuses than the result of an exhaustive investigation. 

The Proskauer Rose report had no contact information, and a media spokesperson for the firm did not return an email. The Timbers declined to comment beyond what is publicly available.

To be sure, the Timbers did a few things right. The club had been helping Alarcón adjust to life in a new country well before the May 23 incident. When McCausland and Mascal visited June 3, they urged Alarcón to seek more help from the Department of Human Services and/or Catholic Charities.

But the Proskauer Rose report takes these actions as proof that the Timbers didn’t offer a quid pro quo for help. That might be literally true, but anyone looking at the situation from Alarcón’s perspective might have felt underlying pressure to back off. Mascal points out in the June 3 meeting that Polo could face a year in prison. She may not have meant that as an implied threat. But would anyone blame Alarcón for hearing “one year in prison” and thinking that if she pursues charges, she’ll lose her financial lifeline?

That’s one of several head-scratchers in the Proskauer Rose report: 

“Ms. Mascal explained to the investigators that she had not been provided with a copy of the police report from the May 23, 2021 incident, and therefore wanted to talk to Ms. Alarcon to better understand what had happened from Ms. Alarcon’s perspective.”

Reporters have a copy of the police report. Mascal couldn’t get it? 

Also, Proskauer Rose said its investigators spoke with six Timbers employees (including the CEO), Mascal, Polo and Alarcón while also checking out Alarcón’s audio recordings and “text messages, emails, and other relevant documents provided by the Timbers.” The report says nothing about speaking with the police or the DA. 

(Worth noting: Mascal resigned from the board of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center in 2019 for what was seen as a “victim-blaming” approach to representing sexual abuse defendants. One sample question she asked in court: “You don’t bring up threesomes with someone you just met, or is that who you are?”) 

“Mr. McCausland and Ms. Mascal each provided credible reasons for being present at the [June 3] meeting.”

Fine, but again, what was the “credible reason” for proceeding with no one representing Alarcón but a good friend who was translating?

The Proskauer Rose investigation was limited to (a) whether the Timbers tried to induce Alarcón not to pursue charges and (b) the Timbers’ failure to report the incident, so it didn’t cover the reason for Alarcón’s since-settled complaint against the club. That document shows another thing from which the Timbers and anyone similarly situated simply have to learn a lesson.

Polo didn’t go to jail May 23. He was given a citation and a June 23 court date. Police were satisfied that Alarcón’s friend and the Timbers staff could keep the couple safe. And that meant, Alarcón’s lawyer argued, that the team assumed responsibility for the situation. 

“Mr. Polo was permitted to be released to his household in part because of the safety plan that was promised by the Portland Timbers,” the complaint read. “Ms. Alarcon and law enforcement relied on the promises above made by the Portland Timbers management. The Portland Timbers failed to honor their responsibilities and duties outlined above, and further abuse and incidents and domestic disturbances occurred within the household after May 23, 2021, causing Ms. Alarcon continued pain and discomfort and significant emotional harm.”

In another action with unfortunate optics, MLS, under pressure from the MLS Players Association, paid his contract in full even though he was terminated and set free to return to Universitario de Deportes, his first pro club in Peru. You’d think that would mean Polo has plenty of money to hand over to Alarcón, but even though Universitario originally said he had to sort things out with her before making his debut, reports from Peru say he turned down one deal and hasn’t settled anything

“We have more than a decade of outstanding work in the community and off the pitch of which we are extremely proud,” read a Timbers press release when the investigation report was made public. “However, we are not perfect and will make mistakes occasionally. When that happens, corrections will be made, and we will learn from them.”

Those corrections can only be made if the mistakes are fully understood. From all available evidence, that is not yet the case. 

When it comes to legal liability, the Polo case may be closed. But it’s not going away.

MLS, the Timbers and all soccer clubs need a serious rethink of what they can and can’t do to assist players’ families, particularly when their relationships turn abusive. If they don’t learn from the past, they’ll be condemned to repeat it.

And then we’ll see more supporters groups holding “YOU KNEW” banners.

Cross-posting to beaudure.medium.com

US Soccer money (and bylaws!), 2022 edition

With the settlement of the WNT lawsuit (pending CBA) and the upcoming AGM, it’s time to CYA and BYOB and too many abbreviations.

Let’s try that again …

The women’s lawsuit is over as long as they can finish up their contract. Also, the Annual General Meeting is coming up, where the big event will be the alliterative presidential election between Cindy Cone and Carlos Cordeiro, but other orders of business include some intriguing proposals.

How to digest this?

First: Read my Guardian story on the lawsuit settlement and why there’s still a lot to do it. I won’t rest easy until the CBA is signed.

Second: Check out the women’s pay resource page, which has a lot of analysis that gives the lawsuit’s history and an analysis of why the suit was doomed. I’ve added a tl;dr high-level summary.

Next: Dig through the updated financial numbers as best you can. They’ve completely changed the way they report the numbers in the AGM book this year, so I just punted on that part, but you can still compare 990s and Audited Financial Statements for the last … many years.

Observations on those numbers:

  • There’s a case to be made that the Cindy Cone/Will Wilson cuts were too drastic. Yes, revenues fell by more than 50%. But so did expenses. Funny how that happens when the national teams aren’t playing.
  • The answer to the “will sponsors pay less in the COVID year?” question is “Yes,” though not as much as you might think. SUM paid $22.2m, down from $30.25m. Nike paid $17.644m, down from $22.65m.
  • Jurgen Klinsmann is, at least, no longer on the federation’s books. But others such as former executive Brian Remedi got severance packages.
  • Former CEO Dan Flynn and former WNT coach Jill Ellis are now listed as “ambassadors” making considerable sums of money. Where’s the embassy?
  • The legal bill in FY 2021 was barely half of the FY 2020 bill. I’m guessing it’s because fewer things were filed. The WNT case had the summary judgment. The NASL case has been on hold like a caller trying to reach the cable company.
  • One massive line item cut in FY 2021: Travel dropped from $34.1m to $5.2m.
  • Aside from that, it’s the wrong year to draw any conclusions.

And some notes from the AGM book

  • The Athletes Council has put forward a bylaw proposal to pay the president $125,000 a year. That has pros and cons, but the primary rationale is that there are only so many people who can do the job for free. Maybe they don’t want to have so many economists running the fed now.
  • A couple of longtime board members/life members are pushing for stricter term limits.
  • The UPSL is applying for recognition as a National Affiliate. As far as I can tell, its peer organizations are not, but they might not be in enough states. The UPSL is now in 38 states.
  • I don’t see non-Para players on the Disability Soccer Committee. It’d be nice to see someone from the MNT or WNT take an interest.
  • Nicole Barnhart is on a couple of financial committees now.
  • Becky Sauerbrunn is on the Rules Committee, which reviews the bylaw and policy proposals and comes up with polite ways of saying “you seriously can’t expect this to be passed.”
  • John O’Brien continues to be the only member of the Sports Medicine committee without “Dr.” in front of his name.
  • Lori Lindsey and Oguchi Onyewu are co-chairs of the Technical Development committee.