Agenda item No. 1 for Cindy Parlow Cone in the last year of her U.S. Soccer presidential term: Build trust.
The marquee controversies -- diversity, lawsuits, representation, player development -- can be at least partially addressed with those two simple words.
U.S. Soccer’s fault lines are complex. The youth and adult associations that have roughly half the vote are often at odds with the pro leagues and the Athletes Council, the latter of which will see its voting power rise from 20% to 33.3% under federal law at some point this year. But the pros and athletes aren’t always unified -- not with the WNT’s lawsuit, the MNT’s long spell without a collective bargaining agreement or contentious league collective bargaining discussions. Nor do the state youth associations, the state adult associations and the national youth/adult organizations comprise a simple monolith.
These divisions don’t have to be a bad thing. U.S. Soccer is a representative democracy, and for all that’s good about that system of governance, it will occasionally bring to mind scenes from Monty Python or Parks and Recreation.
Or it might bring about the occasional burst of shocking racial insensitivity and ignorance, as we saw in an epic rant by Paralympian and freshly elected (subsequently expelled) Athletes Council member Seth Jahn at Saturday’s National Council session of U.S. Soccer’s Annual General Meeting.
Despite Jahn’s comments and a couple of objections from state representatives, the National Council easily affirmed the Board of Directors’ decision to repeal a policy preventing players from kneeling during the national anthem. The weighted vote (more about that later) was more than 70% in favor of the repeal.
By the next morning, most of Jahn’s fellow Athletes Council members had rebuked him on Twitter. Aside from a few professional scolds on social media, few people can believe Jahn’s views are shared by many of the members and former members of the men’s, women’s, Paralympic, beach, futsal and youth national teams who comprise the council. It does raise a question, however, of how athletes ever voted him on the council in the first place.
With this year’s AGM going virtual and the Athletes Council urged to participate more frequently by chair Chris Ahrens and a wave of new young representatives, most of the council attended and voted this time around. Still, because the vote must be weighted so that the athletes -- in accordance with federal law -- must have 20% of the overall vote, each athlete representative’s vote was roughly equal to three good-sized state associations. At least three states would have to join forces to outvote Seth Jahn.
The trust issue is especially important with new federal law requiring athletes’ share of the vote to increase to 33.3%. Hence the debate over the definitions of “athletes,” “share” and “vote,” all of which have been postponed until later in the year. (With 20% of the vote, the Athletes wielded kingmaker power in the 2018 election when they gathered in a conference room for hours before deciding to vote as a bloc for eventual presidential election winner Carlos Cordeiro.)
On Saturday, with the relevant bylaw proposals withdrawn for now, the argument was on the timing and composition of a task force -- or, more precisely, the argument was over Robert’s Rules of Order and USSF bylaws, specifically whether a motion to add an item to the agenda had to be approved by a two-thirds vote or a simple majority. Again, Monty Python.
Looming over all of this is the elephant in the room -- privately owned, MLS-affiliated Soccer United Marketing, which bundles various commercial properties from U.S. Soccer and elsewhere, then pays the federation an eight-figure sum for that privilege, trending upward from $26.25 million in the fiscal year ending March 2017 to $30,250,000 in FY 2020. (How much SUM pays in FY 2021 will be one of the anxiously awaited answers to be provided in the federation’s next audited financial statement -- the AGM book projects commercial revenue, mostly SUM and Nike, at $34.2 million, down from the $54 million that was budgeted before the pandemic.)
Board members swear by SUM, voting to accept the terms of the contract every time its renewal comes up, and the company played a large role in building MLS from near-extinction in 2001 to a league that was charging upwards of $325 million for an expansion club before the pandemic. But the unusual intertwining between the federation’s marketing and the nation’s top men’s league draws a bit of skepticism that hit its apex during the 2018 presidential race, when SUM’s then-president Kathy Carter ran but failed to win over the Athletes Council or a sufficient number of state representatives.
And rank-and-file members aren’t necessarily happy that Don Garber wears so many hats. He’s not just the commissioner of MLS and the CEO of SUM. He’s also a long-standing holder of one of the two Pro Council seats on the Board of Directors. NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird now holds the other slot, but efforts to even out the vote between MLS and the NWSL have stalled once again.
But building trust isn’t a simple matter of athletes showing great responsibility with their great power, nor is it simply a matter of MLS relinquishing some power. It’s a question of getting all the different factions -- MLS, the women’s national team, state adult associations, U.S. Club Soccer, AYSO and so many other groups -- to trust that they’re all ultimately on the same team.