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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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.