But the USASA and the states have a clever argument, encapsulated in a series of by-law amendments they have introduced for approval at Saturday's National Council meeting to expand the definition of "Amateur Athlete."
Even after the 2020 revisions, the Sports Act has a terrible definition of “Amateur Athlete”: “an athlete who meets the eligibility standards established by the national governing body or paralympic sports organization for the sport in which the athlete competes.”
Later in the Act, the definition is further muddled. The USOPC is required to have representation for “amateur athletes who are actively engaged in amateur athletic competition or who have represented the United States in international amateur athletic competition.”
The USSF adult constituencies are harping on the first part of that: “actively engaged in amateur athletic competition.” Congratulations, dude who plays in an over-30 league. You’re now at the same level of representation as Christian Pulisic and Becky Sauerbrunn, the latter of whom serves on several USSF committees.
The Act is still somewhat vague on the definition of “athlete” in terms of meeting the 33.3% requirement. It specifies 20% must be composed of athletes who currently represent the USA in international competition (Olympics, World Championships, similar competitions) or have done so in the past 10 years. The wiggle room the adults may have would be the undefined 13.3% for “athletes” but not necessarily “current or recent national team athletes.”
The USOPC, though, eliminated that possibility in its own bylaws, reserving those extra spaces for any athlete who has repped the USA at all, 10 years ago or longer. (See Section 8.5.3.) A lawyer may try to spin it differently, but it seems unlikely anyone could argue that U.S. Soccer could approve these bylaw amendments without running afoul of the USOPC – which, like it or not, is the parent body of U.S. Soccer.
Indiana’s association has a bolder idea, proposing to increase Athletes Council representation to 33.3% by eliminating some representatives, including both Pro Council reps! The Adult Council would keep one of its two representatives in addition to its players’ new status on the Athletes Council.
The Board of Directors, which voted overwhelmingly (12-2) not to recommend the “amateur athlete” redefinition, unanimously voted not to recommend the Indiana proposal. Instead, U.S. Soccer president Cindy Parlow Cone and 10 other Board members have proposed to keep it simple and add three athletes to the board, giving them six places on a board of 18. This proposal received 11-3 support of the board.
In a peacekeeping effort, Cone wrote a letter asking that all the by-law amendments, including the one with her name on it, be withdrawn or tabled for now, with a special meeting to follow at some point after the staff, board and membership can come up with something palatable. That’s not likely to happen. The USASA and state association proposals may or may not continue with their proposals, which surely won’t get the two-thirds support required to pass. And there’s no guarantee the rest of the board will go along with Cone’s request to punt for now.
Even if Cone’s suggested delay comes to pass, it will merely put off the inevitable. Cone’s letter indicates that any discussion beyond this weekend will be less of a seminar and more of a lecture. She warns that the USOPC and Congress, which assumed more direct oversight in last year’s Sports Act revision, could move to decertify U.S. Soccer if they don’t move quickly to give athletes their required representation.
“Although the Board has been educated on these issues since October 2020, it has become apparent that there is a lack of understanding among the membership surrounding the recent amendments to the USOPC Bylaws,” Cone wrote.
Imparting that understanding is surely a matter of when, not if.
In other AGM business, the Board of Directors also isn’t interested in a West Virginia proposal to split Pro Council votes equally among men and women -- surprisingly, the vote to recommend against it was unanimous, even though it seems like a good way to demonstrate more of a commitment to gender equity. Nor is it signing off on a Metropolitan D.C.-Virginia Soccer Association policy proposal to slash registration fees – youth player fees would drop from $1 to 10 cents, adults from $2 to 25 cents.
This year’s AGM, which will be held virtually, also includes a couple of elections stemming from Carlos Cordeiro’s resignation as president in March. Cone was elevated from vice president to president at the time and is running unopposed to fill the remaining year of Cordeiro’s term. The election for the remaining three years of Cone’s vice presidential term has drawn four candidates -- longtime U.S. national team player Cobi Jones, Idaho youth soccer president Bill Taylor, longtime U.S. Soccer board member Tim Turney and Metropolitan DC-Virginia adult association president Jim Sadowski.
And the board is already changing thanks to sweeping change in the Athletes Council. A group of young athletes who banded together under the “Next Gen United” banner was elected after a strong social media campaign. The surprise was that three of only four holdovers running for 10 spots lost their re-election bids, most notably Lori Lindsey, the council’s vice president and one of the athletes’ representatives on the U.S. Soccer board.
So U.S. Soccer is changing, bit by bit. Athletes, particularly young athletes, will have more say.
Meanwhile, the adult amateurs pushing back on the changes will need to answer some questions. Why should they have as much say as the millions of youth players? Why do we even have separate “Youth” and “Adult” factions instead of encouraging clubs and therefore associations to have complete pathways from the smallest ages up to amateur teams?
Then everyone will be on the same page for the biggest challenge facing U.S. Soccer in the 2020s -- paying legal bills.
An earlier version of this story included U.S. Soccer’s projected registration revenue for FY2021 from several organizations. Though those figures were taken from the Annual General Meeting Book of Reports, US Club Soccer has reported far higher numbers -- around 490,000 youth players and 16,000 adults, which would put their registration revenue around $525,000.