What’s the Beef with USA Rugby?? 3

I’m very much looking forward to attending this weekend’s festivities in Glendale, CO.  These include but are not limited to the USA Rugby Strategic Planning presentation at Infinity Park, the US Rugby Foundation Hall of Fame Dinner, and most important, a vital RWC 2019 Warmup match for our USA Eagles vs. Canada. Coinciding with the front end of this weekend is one of the USAR Congress’ Annual (in person) meetings.

This should be a time for celebrating the current state of USA Rugby, which according to its simple mission boils down to:

  1. Present competitive National Teams on the global rugby stage.
  2. Implement and execute the Union’s member-driven programs and services.

A third part of the mission has recently been added

  1. Grow the Game.

We have had considerable success on the field and off. However, rather than celebrating this, there is increased criticism of USA Rugby’s leadership. This is true not only on social media but at many of the various rugby venues I’ve attended in the past few months. Facebook contains numerous threads daily on the perceived failures of USA Rugby leadership. This leadership group includes the Board of Directors, and senior key staff consisting of Ross Young (CEO), Eric Gleason (CFO), and Mark Griffin (CCO).

Leading up to the celebrated announcement of the Strategic Planning process at USA Rugby (a most cherished occasion in my opinion), the weekend could potentially be marred by the continued lack of unity between Congress and the Board/Staff Leadership. The primary topic of the weekend will be the Congress vote on their representative to the Board of Directors.  The divisive nature of this whole process has been in full play as the electoral candidates vie for this Board seat.

Fueling this discontent are recent articles from Rugby Today journalist, Pat Clifton.  I respect Pat’s journalism and his commitment to the sport. We communicate regarding various rugby issues several times per year. For the most part, we agree, but in this case, I find his writing to be pointlessly biased toward generating dissent rather than creating the comradery we need at this critical time.

Our USA Rugby leadership group is brand new. The Board has been seated for less than 6 months, and the C-suite staff has been in position for less than a year. It is not our current leadership group that caused any of the resource limitations we are suffering from today. Most of our issues are related to finance, and all of them are related to prior leadership shortcomings.

This current leadership group is the one who will get us out of the mess created by the RIM debacle and other leadership errors of the prior administration. Young (CEO), Barbara O’Brien (Board Chair), Paul Santinelli (Vice Board Chair), and company merit all of our support. Young is outstanding with unrivaled experience in the rugby world, and we are fortunate to have him. O’Brien’s mandate in constructing a new Board was to ‘get adults in the room ‘, and she has accomplished this successfully. Santinelli, with his extensive business acumen, is as solid a rugby person we could have serving on the Board.

I am confident in the leadership today.  Most readers will understand that this is a statement I would not have made a year ago. This isn’t to say that the current leadership has not made some mistakes. For example, despite the legal issues, it is imperative that the humanitarian side of the Robert Paylor case be addressed.

Young’s request to enforce USA Rugby policy of confidentiality is not a ‘Gag Order,’ as Clifton described it. Young simply wants Congress members to document their commitment to confidentiality. The USAR Bylaws of Congress authority and the requirement for confidentiality are:

Section 4.1. Authority.

…Congress Members shall be bound by the Corporation’s confidentiality and conflict of interest policies, as such policies shall be adopted and amended from time to time by the Board.

To this end, all Congress members are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement although many still have not. This needs to change.  Similarly, over half of Congress members contributing to ‘youth rugby’ input have not received the SafeSport Certificate per US Olympic Committee Mandate.  Young is simply trying to gain compliance within the organization he is tasked to do so.

My assessment of the organizational structure is that far too many people feel entitled to comment on matters in which they have no domain. Social media, of course, is a big culprit and magnifies this issue. Young is trying to get a handle on the organization’s communications tactics. Right now, the communication standards across the organization need significant improvement.  Threads of various Congress members using the USAR domain is all the evidence required.

Strategic Plan must be the Primary Focus of the Organization

This mandated plan is the #1 responsibility of the Board per Section 5.1.(a) in USAR Bylaws. The Union has been timely in striking a named strategic partnership (i.e., Sponsor) in EY (formerly Ernst & Young). An important part of this strategic plan will be re-assessing the functions, size, and structure of Congress.

Present Competitive National teams on the Global Rugby Stage

In terms of achieving USA Rugby’s first objective, this year has yielded unparalleled success:

  1. Men’s 7s – #2 in the World and Olympic 2020 qualifiers
  2. Men’s XVs – defeated first IRB nation 13 months ago, gearing for an upset in the RWC
  3. Women’s 7s – Biarritz Champions and Olympic 2020 qualifiers
  4. Women’s XVs – Recently upset Canada in Super Series

Implement and Execute the Union’s Member-driven Programs and Services

I have personally had discussions with Young about many off-field issues and the member programs/services he is responsible for. He thoroughly understands the relationship between the Union’s income statement and its inherent ability to perform its mission of fielding competitive national teams and providing world-class member services. Young gave me ample evidence of the wisdom of hosting the Super Series in Chula Vista rather than a significantly more costly venue. He explained to me his sensible philosophy on cost management as it relates to the current realities of USA Rugby’s ability to generate revenue.

The leaders of the USA Rugby Union have tirelessly worked to change the ethos of the organization to one of transparency, vibrancy, inclusiveness, and winning. They deserve better than continuous nitpicking and personal jabs at their character.

Grow the Game

In order to grow the game in the United States, it is imperative that a well-articulated and sensible Strategic Plan be presented by the Board. The Strategic Plan must include growth initiatives like NIRA (Women’s Varsity Initiative), High School Varsity Initiative and other programs.  These programs need energy, vigor, and resources provided in the plan.

I have discussed with the current leadership the ‘FLO Rugby’ issue and the paywall preventing potential rugby fans from watching our National teams. I am satisfied with the efforts made to date to renegotiate this contract, as well as the plans in place by new Board member Mike McKenna to gain traction in permitting the Union to retain control of its content.

I have a vision of the American Rugby community working in unison to share our great sport with the entire USA population while we continue to grow our successes at the podium. We are on the right track – finally. We have good people in place, in the right places. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.

Summary: The rugby community should back this Strategic Planning process and the USA Rugby current leadership team’s direction, focus, and commitment. Let’s offer support rather than blame and unwarranted criticism.

See you in Glendale!



  1. USA Rugby Strategic Planning? One of the few 4 word oxymorons in our lexicon. I would feel more comfortable if you were the meeting chair.
    Clifton fueling discontent? For the past few years I have been in the TR camp for precisely that reason. We grew complacent with mediocrity and you were the voice in the wilderness that made people stop and think.
    As for Clifton, without him we would be completely in the dark. You don’t have to agree with his conclusions, but his presentation of empirical data is unparalleled. Pat and I couldn’t disagree more outside of rugby, but no one that I know collects the raw numbers and presents them to the public like he does .
    I wish you and the conference all the best in achieving some success in an area which has long been long a cloud over our Union.

  2. Paul Santinelli is a good rugby man. Plenty of confidence in him. He needs a haircut, but my dad told me that every day until I joined the Marines. The school- high school varsity initiative is one Im keen to see executed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s