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.

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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.

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.

Promotion/relegation 2022, by popular demand (sort of)


Apologies for misleading people with the headline. I’m not saying promotion/relegation is going to happen because of popular demand. The growth in MLS and other “closed” leagues is a rather powerful argument against that argument.

No, I’m doing a post by popular demand. Also because MLS is growing too much, moving up to 30 teams and a Leagues Cup competition with Mexico.

So yes, it’s time to reconsider. First, I’ll need to sum up the thousands of words I’ve written on the topic, much of it on my own blogs but also occasionally in outlets like The Guardian. Bear in mind that if you want a good synopsis of how U.S. soccer arrived at this point, I wrote the book on the subject:

It only mentions pro/rel in passing, but the “historical and cultural reality check” is relevant. People often say “pro/rel works everywhere else, so why not here?” without considering what makes the USA unique and difficult.

A quick look back at the issue:

Yes, I’ve written plans for pro/rel in the past. And given the Leagues Cup and growing intermingling with Mexico, I think these plans need a rewrite.

I already wrote a suggested league(s) calendar to accommodate the Leagues Cup. It’s at Soccer America.

So let’s go farther. This might seem unusual, but bear in mind that a lot of countries (see England, Japan and the Netherlands) have historically had narrow gateways between amateur and pro divisions. Also, Brazil had one year in which the final 16 teams included qualifiers from the lower divisions.

The goal here is simple: Maximize opportunity, minimize risk.

Start with a licensing requirement based on facilities, staffing, academy and competitive criteria. Instead of joining MLS as an expansion club, an existing club obtains a MLS license, with which they’re guaranteed a place in either the first or second division. Other clubs can get an MLS associate license, which guarantees a place in either the second or third division. The third division can grow almost indefinitely through independent leagues with their own competition rules. If you really want to have pro/rel within a third-division league, fine.

So here’s the deal:

Fall season

Late July (as soon as practical after World Cup or other international tournaments) to mid-December, 20 weeks plus playoff final. Also note CONCACAF Champions Cup.

MLS Division 1: 16 teams, all with full licenses. East/West divisions. Top four in each qualify for Leagues Cup and cannot be relegated. Top team in each division qualifies for single-game MLS Cup at warm-weather neutral venue just before Christmas.

MLS Division 2: 16 teams, full or associate licenses, with room to grow. Four teams qualify for Leagues Cup. Those with full licenses are promoted.

Third division: Independent leagues that govern as they see fit.

Spring season

February to mid-May (finished in time for World Cup/other international tournament). Also note Open Cup.

Leagues Cup: 12 MLS, 12 Liga MX. Four-team single-elimination playoff.

MLS Promotion Cup: All full-license clubs that aren’t in Leagues Cup play for spots in MLS Division 1.

Third division: Independent leagues continue, with associate-license teams rejoining. National tournament of qualified teams determines which teams play in Division 2 the next season.

Other tournaments

CONCACAF Champions League (really Cup): Knockout tournament in fall but give byes to quarterfinals to Leagues Cup, MLS, Liga MX and CONCACAF League champions. Play-in round spots go to runners-up of those competitions, CONCACAF League third-place finisher, Caribbean champion, U.S. Open Cup winner and Canadian champion. (If someone qualifies for the play-in round by two different routes — say, Open Cup winner and MLS runner-up — that team gets a bye. If any other spaces remain, go to third place finisher in Leagues Cup.)

U.S. Open Cup: Local leagues and third division play qualifying rounds in fall. In mid-January, surviving teams face MLS teams (excluding League Cup teams) in 20 four-team groups at warm-weather sites. That takes us to 32 teams for knockout tournament culminating in May final.

The rationale

Existing MLS clubs face little risk to the nine-figure investments they’ve made. Every year, they have a chance at the Leagues Cup. They’ll either have a chance at MLS Cup or promotion.

Up-and-coming pro clubs get a new pathway that could see them reach the second division and even the Leagues Cup, in addition to the Open Cup. Over time, they may solidify and earn a full license.

Other pro clubs can play in regional leagues. Over time, they may earn an associate license.

Youth players will have opportunities with local clubs that cannot lose pro status unless they collapse. You won’t see an entire state’s kids lose their pathways to the pros just because the senior team had injury problems and got relegated.

And it’ll be fun.

And it’ll never happen.

Best of SportsMyriad 2014

The best-read posts and the most-overlooked posts of the year. (In other words — what you read and what I’m still attached to even though you didn’t read it, so in the spirit of the holidays, please give it another chance!)

BEST-READ (not counting the 2014 medal projections and all related posts, which destroy all, and not counting 2012’s Single-Digit Soccer: Flunk the 2-3-1?, which still gets traffic)

5. Women’s soccer: Show me the money: Building off Allison McCann’s piece on NWSL salaries and her ill-timed piece on Tyresö.

4. Wrong time to suspend Hope Solo: If nothing else, I confused people who think I wish nothing but ill on the USA’s controversial keeper.

3. Washington Spirit vs. FC Kansas City: Goal rush: An early game for the Spirit and an atypical game in retrospect, rolling over the eventual champions with a first-half surge instead of waiting until Minute 90something to conjure up an unlikely result.

2. Single-Digit Soccer: Give U10 travel the boot: This will be one of the big issues in my book.

1. Remembering Dan Borislow: Once the shock of the news passed, I wrote a remembrance of the former WPS magicJack owner that I hope captured his complexities.

(Hey — no pro/rel posts!)

MOST OVERLOOKED

MLS, USA and Canada 2022: One vision: A few offbeat suggestions for soccer’s future along with a couple of current trends. And Peter Wilt as FIFA president.

NWSL: Spirit, Breakers and the end of reality: One of the craziest women’s soccer games of the year.

An offbeat proposal for NWSL 2015: Solving the scheduling dilemma.

MLS: Time to quit playing hardball: Written nine months before the CBA talks really got underway.

UFC, MLS, markets and monopolies: Why the MLS lawsuit is a bad precedent for the fighters now suing the UFC.

Why I prefer the Olympics to the World Cup: Really. Includes a good John Oliver clip.

College athlete unions, paying players and unasked questions: Not just picking a fight with Jay Bilas.

‘Enduring Spirit’ epilogue: Thoughts from Diana Matheson: Hey, she was nice enough to respond to my postseason questions. Read them!

U.S. Open Cup: Top 14 teams and upset history: See the spreadsheet!

Break up the Olympics: Let all four U.S. bid cities host the Games.

War on Nonrevenue Sports returns: USOC gearing up: Has anyone noticed that sports other than football and basketball are endangered on college campuses?

STUFF I WROTE ELSEWHERE

A little knowledge on the USA TODAY layoffs: Essentially a pointed rebuttal to some guy who thought he knew what was going on.

Weird Al-related question: Lamest claims to fame: In which I point out my strange connections to everyone from Kim Basinger to George Will to Ben Folds.

Why we believe utter crap: Political scientist Brendan Nyhan has figured it out.

Leon Sebring Dure III: 1931-2014: My father’s life as a Marine, designated hitter opponent, survivor, and man who showed his love for the world with a sense of responsibility.

In defense of the Spin Doctors: Seriously.

Farewell to Landon Donovan: My memories of covering the legend.

Most Essential Simpsons Episodes of the Last 5 Seasons: Written to coincide with the marathon.

More from me at OZY.

In the New Year, expect a lot of Single-Digit Soccer and the start of the 2016 medal projections. Can’t wait.

The 2013 book extravaganza

This year, I’m doing a lot less freelance work and focusing on a few projects:

1. I’m following the Washington Spirit of the new National Women’s Soccer League through its debut season and will publish an electronic book as soon as possible after the season is finished in late August.

2. I’m writing about youth soccer, specifically the Under-10s and below, for a book called Single-Digit Soccer.

3. I’m still blogging at SportsMyriad and will work up 2014 Olympic medal projections.

Two opportunities to publish my work:

1. My book on The Ultimate Fighter is finished. My representative for publishing rights is Margaret O’Connor at Innisfree Literary.

2. If you’re interested in Single-Digit Soccer, please contact me. I’ll also be open to deals on the Washington Spirit book, but I plan to push that out quickly and won’t be going through the usual publishing process.

If you need me for soccer, MMA or Olympic writing, feel free to contact me. I’m limiting my time but will listen to good offers. The work doesn’t have to pay a ton — if you think the topic is up my alley, go ahead and ask!

As always, enjoy following SportsMyriad and my lively duresport Twitter feed, where I always seem to find a good soccer argument.

Time for a women’s sports and fitness channel?

At espnW, former WNBA president Val Ackerman explores women’s sports on TV with consultant Neil Pilson, who mixes some blunt assessments of the broadcasting landscape with a couple of interesting ideas, such as this:

One possibility would be to have [the channel] show more than just women’s sports. See if you could link with women’s health. See if you could link to some form of children’s programming that would link daughters and mothers together.

So would a women’s sports and fitness channel make sense? Particularly if it’s part of a larger sports/entertainment company that offers cross-promotion? (In other words, the dedicated channel would show a lot of women’s sports, while the “main” channel would pick up big events and highlights.)

And if ESPN doesn’t do it, would Fox (now launching a full-fledged ESPN rival) or NBC (building on soccer and Olympic sports) consider it?

Spring makeover on the site

I didn’t intend to spend so much time tweaking the site this week. Frankly, it’s all a rookie mistake, though I’m far too old to be a rookie. I updated my theme without backing up or making a child theme and all that.

So widgets that were once in their proper form were suddenly too wide or nonexistent. The fonts were all out of whack. I suddenly have a second menu bar that won’t go away.

I’ve more or less replaced all the widgets. I tweaked one font slightly. But I’ve given up replicating the old SportsMyriad look, at least for now.

But I figured I might as well make a few small changes while I was trying to restore some sort of order:

1. Most of the categories I use with some sort of regularity are in that second menu bar.

2. I also added a couple of tags in that second menu bar: NWSL and Single-Digit Soccer. Not coincidentally, these are my two book projects this year.

3. The UFC ladders project is on hold for now. No one’s reading it, and it’s a bear to update.

Feedback welcome.

Monday Myriad: April 8

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Monday Myriad, Jan. 21: Figure skating fights and chess marathons

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