“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:
- Represent the sport internationally (e.g., being a member of the World Curling Federation).
- Conduct events (national championships) that lead to world championships.
- 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.
- Ensure equity for women and run programs for disabled athletes.
- 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.)
- Comply with the US Anti-Doping Agency.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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:
- Handling of the Jeff Plush/NWSL situation.
- Handling of the GNCC situation.
- 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.