Thursday, August 10, 2017

A Tale of Three Teams: Clarity Needed in USA Curling’s Discretionary Pick Process

What does it actually take for American curlers to represent USA Curling at an elite level? Given recent occurrences at the 2017 National Championships (“Nationals”) and the announcement of the teams selected to compete at the upcoming 2018 U.S. Olympic Team Trials (“Trials”), there have been some questions among curlers regarding this process. One of the major sources of confusion is that of the discretionary pick process used by USA Curling. The discretion exercised by USA Curling in selecting teams to compete at an elite level has produced much uncertainty. A shining example of the issues with the discretionary pick process can be seen by comparing the cases of Team Birr (Blaine, MN), Team Wood (Parker, CO/California), and Team Leichter (Boston, MA).

USA Curling recently announced the teams who would be competing at Trials. The men’s teams included the John Shuster, Brady Clark, Craig Brown, and Heath McCormick rinks. Noticeably absent from the list was the Todd Birr rink. Team Birr, with the lineup of Todd Birr (skip), Rich Ruohonen (vice), John Benton (second), and Tom O’Connor (lead) earned a silver medal at the 2017 Men’s Nationals, losing in the final game to Team Shuster—the only men’s team who automatically qualified for Trials. At Nationals, Team Birr also claimed victories over some of USA Curling’s High Performance Program (HPP) teams, including the three teams aside from Team Shuster selected to attend Trials. Team Birr also had a respectable number of Order of Merit (OOM) points for the 2016-2017 season. However, despite all of this success, Team Birr did not receive a discretionary pick to compete at Trials.

In comparison with Team Birr, Team Wood, which, at the time of 2017 Nationals, consisted of Becca Wood (skip), Auria Moore (vice), Porsche Renae Stephenson (second), and Donna Umali (lead) was granted a discretionary pick to attend the 2017 Women’s Nationals. This was a remarkable choice for USA Curling given that Team Wood attended the tournament with no OOM points and zero games won in the Nationals Challenge Round or at any World Curling Tour competition prior to Nationals and its Challenge Round. While both Team Birr and Team Wood are talented, the granting of a discretionary pick for Team Wood, but withholding its use for Team Birr in their respective venues displays a perplexing standard that may not support Team USA’s quest for international competitive excellence.

I had the pleasure of speaking with the skips of Team Birr and Team Wood, and they were both surprised by the discretionary pick process, albeit, for very different reasons. In the case of Team Wood, Becca Wood admits she was surprised by Team Wood’s receipt of the discretionary pick, but did not question it as she believes, though their team did not win any games or have any OOM points, their dedication and desire shone through when they competed during the playdowns.

Paradoxically, Todd Birr admits his team was surprised at not receiving a discretionary pick to attend Trials, despite Team Birr’s outstanding silver medal performance against the 2014 U.S. Olympic Curling Team (Team Shuster) at the 2017 Nationals as well as their solid season prior to Nationals (which included wins against some of the top teams on the World Curling Tour). Because the standard is so vague, Team Birr’s attorney, Marcus Beyer, sent a letter to Rick Patzke, CEO of USA Curling, requesting reconsideration of Team Birr’s exclusion from Trials; but, the reconvened Trials selection committee upheld their decision to refuse Team Birr’s request, relying on a provision in the Selection Procedures that stated the committee “reserves the right to not add any discretionary selections if they feel it is in the best interests of international excellence” as long as the minimum number of required teams has been met. No other reasoning for not allowing Team Birr to compete at Trials was given.

This situation is also odd given that when the Alex Leicther rink (Boston, MA; Alex Leichter (skip), Martin Sather (vice), Nate Clark (second), Ryan Hallisey (lead)) was given a discretionary pick to participate in the men's field at 2017 Nationals despite not qualifying through the Challenge Round, the USA Curling press release announcing the decision stated that the pick was “awarded to Alex Leichter (Boston) as the next highest ranked OOM team that competed in the Challenge Round.” Like Team Leichter, Team Birr is the next highest ranked OOM team that competed at Nationals (where they won silver) and yet they did not receive a discretionary pick although a spot still remains available.

With the response from the Trials selection committee to Attorney Beyer and Team Birr, confusion has only increased. Many curlers, including myself, are wondering how it could not be in the best interests of international excellence to have the Nationals runner-up who (as per Todd Birr) had a winning record against two teams that were selected (Brown and Clark), and an even record against a third (Team McCormick) during the 2016-2017 season, be included as the allowed fifth team for Trials. It is especially strange given the documented conflicts of interest within the Selection Committee that Attorney Beyer noted in Team Birr’s official complaint with regard to the matter.

Even some of USA Curling’s own board members have recognized that there is a problem with team selection. According to the minutes of the USA Curling Board of Directors meeting held on July 10, 2017 via teleconference, “[f]ive board members indicated concerns regarding the Olympic Trials selection process.” (July 10, 2017 Board Meeting Minutes, page 1, section 2a.) The July 10th board meeting was held in response to the “chatter, both via emails and social media” regarding the Trials selection process. . . . All of this is directly related to the Team Birr request to be included as a discretionary selection in the upcoming Olympic Trials.” (Board Meeting Minutes, page 1, section 2a.)

At this meeting, “The Board spent a significant amount of time debating specifics of the matter and potential implications of what has been on social media by Team Birr’s attorney versus what was considered by the selection committee. It was noted several times that the committee had significantly more information to consider than has been included in the Team Birr letter, and the committee’s deliberations are considered confidential.” (Board Meeting Minutes, page 2, section 4 (emphasis added).) While the deliberations may be considered confidential, the information to be considered when making discretionary selections for Trials is straightforward and set by Section 2.2 of the Selection Procedures. Further, it should be noted that a failure to comply with its own Selection Procedures disseminated to the athletes is highly problematic for USA Curling and could ultimately result in Team Birr’s bid for a Trials spot being successful, even if their current challenge under Article 15 of USA Curling’s bylaws failed. All of this is due to Team Birr’s option to file a grievance with United States Olympic Committee (USOC) under section 9 of the USOC’s bylaws. (See USA Curling Bylaws, pg. 48, Section 15.11).

Whether or not Team Birr will take that step remains to be seen. Fortunately, this step is not without precedent. There have been many challenges to national governing body (NGB) decisions regarding selection for Olympic Trials and other major events. While it is a difficult path to pursue and many of these challenges are unsuccessful, the ones that tend to result in change are the ones where the NGB did not follow its own selection procedures (See Komanski v. USA Cycling, AAA 01 15 0004 9907 (Nov. 15, 2015) (Jeffrey G. Benz, Arb.), where USA Cycling was forced to substitute Lauren Komanski in place of another athlete as a discretionary selection). Although, this is a lengthy process for Team Birr, their cause is worthy, and hopefully, will spark change and more transparency in the processes used by USA Curling to determine who competes at a national level, and ultimately who has earned the right to represent the U.S. on the international stage in our sport. Team Birr is not asking to be named America’s Olympic team for curling in 2018; they’re merely asking for the chance to show that they’ve got what it takes to rightfully win and be named that team—similar to how both Team Wood and Team Leichter were given the chance to show that they were capable of competing at a national level.

This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of any organizations that the author is affiliated with.


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