Athletes in the USFSA

The following is an in-depth look at the issue of athlete representation in the USFSA Governing Council as discussed at this year's meeting.  In general, the term "athlete" as used below refers to athletes involved in governance of the USFSA; typically members of the Athletes Advisory Committee, and other elite athletes of similar stature.  It does not encompass just anyone in the association who skates, its more general meaning.

Although not quite as entertaining as the cat fight between the clubs from New Jersey fighting over what region they should be in, one of the more interesting issues wrestled with at Governing Council was the representation of athletes at Governing Council  meetings themselves.  Here is our take on what happened, why it happened, and what it's all about.

First the easy part: what initiated all this.

From time to time the USOC reviews the bylaws and rules of the NGBs to see if they are in compliance with USOC rules and the Amateur Sports Act.  NGBs must follow the requirements of the sports act and the USOC to be recognized as NGBs.

About a year ago the USFSA was audited by the USOC and a few issues came up.  First, although the USFSA has unambiguous anti-discrimination language in its rules, the preferred USOC language did not appear in the USFSA bylaws; and second, although the USFSA provides athletes the legally mandated 20% participation on the USFSA Board of Directors and on all committees, they are not guaranteed 20% representation in the Governing Council.  Athletes frequently attended the Governing Council meetings as delegates, but there has been no mechanism to guarantee they make up 20% of the available votes (clearly they never have) nor even to count the number that have attended as a group.

The first of the above two issues was easy dispatched this year, with the "approved" language added to the bylaws without fuss.  The second issue, however, opened up a hornets nest of turmoil and angst.

So what happened?

A task force was formed to draft changes to the bylaws to bring them into compliance for the issues brought up by the USOC.  This committee consisted of the three Association Vice-Presidents and the chairs of the Athletes Advisory Committee and the Rules Committee. The chairman of the committee was Kathaleen Kelly Cutone, who is  also chairman of the Athletes Advisory Committee.

Right off the bat two tactical errors were made; first, making Cutone Chair of this committee, and second, intermixing four basically unrelated issues in one five-page exhibit to be voted on at the Governing Council.

The problem with having Cutone chair of the committee was that she is primarily known as chair of the Athletes Advisory Committee.  The delegates responded to her at the meeting in that role and reacted to these changes as a power play by the athletes. Then, by presenting an unnecessarily complex amendment without laying the groundwork before the meeting, the committee marched down the road to disaster along a path followed by others before them.

Several years ago a similar scenario played out over revising the management structure of the Association.  A task force was formed headed by Morry Stillwell (the current USFSA President).  An extensive revision to the bylaws was proposed, and dumped into the laps of the delegates as part of the annual meeting book. The night before the meeting at the delegates' three sectional caucuses Morry got to speak for about 2 minutes before delegate after delegate got up to say what a lousy idea it was.  The next day when he presented the changes to the meeting for discussion he got to speak for about 1 minute before the same thing happened.  Morry and the revisions were sent packing.  In the following years, however, many of the desired changes were put into effect through changes to the rules and administrative changes at headquarters, which are easier to implement.

From the above experience, you would think people would learn.  The lessons of the management debacle were that the delegates are suspicious of radical change, the delegates do not  like to hear about important changes for the first time when they get their meeting books,  the delegates do not deal well with complex revision to the bylaws, and it is far easier to implement changes through the rules than through the bylaws.

This year the delegates, again, did not find out about the issues until they got their meeting books.  Cutone made the rounds at the caucuses and got the same noisy reception as did Morry years before.  At the meeting  the next day all hell broke loose and Cutone and most of the task force's work was sent packing.

A belated attempt was made to sort out the proposals that applied to the different issues into bite-sized pieces, but it was too late and just too complex to handle on-the-fly.  The changes relating to anti-discrimination, and two other minor issues passed, but everything else relating to athlete representation at Governing Council and the definition of an athlete (for the purposes of governance) was sent back to committee.

In addition to the tactical errors made in the way this was presented to the meeting, the approach of the athletes did not help.  Cutone made no effort to make it clear this was coming from  the task force and not the Athletes Advisory Committee until it was all over.  The athlete's tried to bludgeon the delegates into accepting the proposal on the  legalistic basis that this was required by the sports act and the USOC, and it had to be accepted in the form presented - like it or lump it - or the USOC would do horrible things to the Association.  Their handout on the subject consisted of the text of the sports act with hand written annotations meant to demonstrate that changes had to be made.   Cutone, with the assistance of Jeffrey Benz seemed to go out of their way to antagonize the delegates.  Instead of taking a politician's approach to swaying/schmoozing  the delegates they took a lawyer's approach (which they both are), trying to use the sports act like a court order to compel the delegates to pass the changes, and then reacting poorly when things didn't go their way.

During New Business at the end of the meeting a resolution was passed stating that the Association approved of the concept of 20% representation of athletes at Governing Council if it was needed to comply with USOC requirements.  "If needed" because, surprisingly, by the end of the meeting it still was not clear whether this change truely is required by law.

During the meeting when Cutone spoke as chair of the Athletes Advisory Committee she said she sensed a "chasm" was forming between the athletes and the rest of the Association, and refered to an element of anti-athlete hostility she sensed during the meeting.  While she is correct that a chasm and an element of "us vs. them" was evident, she also overreacted and missed the point.  She and this issue were treated no harsher than was the management revision and Morry Stillwell in his trial by fire; and the athletes (who most clearly were the ones pushing this) made no effort to offer a "we" perspective.  Jeffrey Benz, who also serves in the USOC, did not earn any points when asked near the end of the meeting if he would support the the views of the Association or the USOC when the consequences of the actions taken (or not taken) came up at the USOC.   Ultimately, his answer was that he would not vote on issues relating to the Association at the USOC, but in getting to that answer it was not pretty, making it clear he would not be an advocate for the Association.  Again he answered like a lawyer when he needed to be a politician.

The final sideshow occurred when officers were elected near the close of the meeting.  The athletes bumped Scott Wendland off the Executive Committee and replace him after only one year with Rachel Mayer.  Scott was nominated from the floor and then nominations were quickly closed - but it was too late, the damage was done.  After some comments from the floor describing how Scott deserved to be on the committee, other testimonials, and some observations that what the athletes were doing was highly out of the ordinary - not the least of which because it is traditional to serve for more than one year, and to have committee representatives come from different sections - Scott did the diplomatic thing and withdrew his name from consideration.  With the choices of Cutone and Mayer, the two athlete representatives on the Executive Committee are both women (a politically incorrect statement, but relevant), both from the same section, and both from the same club.

This last bit of theatre, and all that had come before, served to create the impression that the athletes' approach to governance in the Association was decidedly undemocratic in spirit.  Given the frequency and ease with which it happened, one left the meeting wondering if the Athletes Advisory Committee actually enjoys stepping in dog poop, and curious if they even heard of PR.

So what's this all about?

Despite some misgivings the delegates were, in fact, willing to accept 20% athlete participation in Governing Councils.  That part of the bylaws revision actually got passed (later rescinded when things got messy), and at the end of the meeting the Association still went on record in favor of it, in principle.

What the delegates did not like was the method of implementing that 20% participation and the proposed definition of an athlete.  The proposal presented at this meeting was that any athlete who showed up at a Governing Council meeting could serve as a delegate, and if the number of athletes who showed up did not constitute 20% of the total vote, the athletes present would be given enough proxies to bring their vote up to 20%.

Delegates had various problems with this.  Among the major ones:

First, the USFSA is an association of clubs and this approach was viewed as weakening the clubs and fundamentally altering the entire foundation of a highly successful Association.

Second, only a handful of athletes typically attend Governing Council meetings. To achieve 20% representation, the few that do attend (primarily members of the Athletes Advisory Committee and a few who come as delegates representing their clubs) would have to be given a total of about 200 proxies.  This would have created a huge monolithic voting block controlled by a few individuals, an idea many considered inappropriate and unfair.

Third, some delegates felt this would create two competing groups of delegates with conflicting agendas: club delegates representing the vast majority of skaters, and a handful of athlete delegates representing the elite athletes.  Some delegates felt they were being told by the elite athletes that change was needed because they do not adequately represent the interests of the skaters in their clubs, and took offense.  [For their part, some athletes felt the delegates were telling them they were not the best group to represent all the skaters in the association, and likewise took offense.]

Complicating the question of how athlete representation should be implemented, is the further question of who should be considered an athlete for the purposes of governing the Association.  The current definition of an athlete is someone actively engaged in skating, or someone who has represented the US in international competition in the past 10 years.  The second half of the definition is unambiguous.  It's the first half that's the problem.  What exactly does "actively engaged" mean?  Some athletes favor a very narrow definition (e.g., World and  Olympic athletes only), while others  are slightly more generous but still would exclude all precision skaters.  The criteria proposed at this year's meeting was anyone who has competed at the junior or senior level at US Nationals or Precision Nationals in the past 10 years.

To many delegates this definition (which was not approved) is still too restrictive.  What about adult athletes?  What about recreational skaters and skaters who test but do not compete?  What about the vast majority of the skaters, who are typically 12 year old girls and younger?  And who is best able to represent the needs of these skaters?  The club delegates - many of whom are parents of skaters, former skaters, or adult skaters - say they are, not a handful of elite athletes.  The elite athletes say they are - after all, they have made it through the system; in Cutone's words, "who better?"

The reason the definition is so important is that it determines the size of the group that would hold 20% of the vote.  With the proposed definition about 400 persons, at best, would have 20% representation with about 60,000 members having the remaining 80%.  In other words, about 2/3 of 1 percent of the membership would have a 20% say in running the association. 

What next?

Within the Association it is basically back to square one, with nothing to show but a lot of hurt feelings.  A new plan will have to be formulated.  Hopefully it will address the concerns of the clubs, produce a broadly acceptable definition of athlete, and be presented to the membership next time with greater skill.  The first step, however, should focus on serious fence mending.  Regrettably, most of the passions inflamed by this subject can be traced to the inept way it was handled, and could have been easily avoided.

In regard to future actions a lot, of course, depends on how the USOC reacts.  It is not expected they will take any precipitous action prior to the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, but after that it is either hammer the Association, do nothing, or set a deadline to toe the line.  We expect the latter.  The USOC is also not being particularly helpful by not explicitly committing to what they require.  We are told their stance has more been along the lines of make some changes first and then we will tell you if you got the right answer.

Our own humble suggestion is that after deciding on a definition of an athlete, the Association should track the number of athlete and non-athlete members in the individual clubs and allocate each club an appropriate number of delegates of each type using a formula that results in 20% athlete representation, by total number of allocated votes.  In principle, a definition that encompasses 20% of the registered members of the Association would be the most democratic approach, but that may be impossible to achieve given the demographics of the Association.

Whatever approach is taken, however, it seems obvious to us that athlete representation should somehow be implemented through the clubs so that Governing Councils consist of one group of club representatives (albeit of two different flavors) working together, and not two separate adversarial groups.  There is already too much of that in the way athletes are incorporated currently into other parts of the Association's governance, and this year's meeting made it clear that more of that approach is not likely to be constructive.

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