USA Curling’s incomplete investigations
Taken from a Dec. 16, 2022 post that focused on the NWSL/NWSLPA report, which lacked the professionalism and depth of the Yates Report. I’ve excerpted the parts that apply to USA Curling.
I have a new way of thinking about Jeff Plush and the reports about his action/inaction when faced with disturbing reports of sexual misconduct at the NWSL.
LEVEL 1: Based solely on headlines in which Plush’s name is juxtaposed with “sexual misconduct.” That’s the media’s fault, and I say that as a journalist. The details are far more complicated.
LEVEL 2: “Wait, we’ve read the Yates Report, and we’ve heard from people who worked in soccer at the time, and it looks like Plush did the best he could under the circumstances.” Based on that information, it’s reasonable to pump the brakes on the bus driving Plush away from the USA Curling office. But then there’s …
LEVEL 3: “On reflection, there are questions he didn’t answer. He didn’t cooperate with the Yates Report, and that’s one more example in which he has taken bad advice. Add this situation to the Great Schism in US curling, in which he should take an awful lot of blame, and it’s clear that Plush is the wrong person to lead this organization.”
Some people in the curling community haven’t gone past Level 1. After USA Curling’s investigators weighed in, some board members were at Level 2 but clearly had some qualms about it. Some athletes went on podcasts and presented an incorrect timeline — Paul Riley (the now-excommunicated soccer coach at the heart of the sexual misconduct reports) got another job after leaving Portland, took another job, was let go from that job, and THEN Plush’s intervention helped keep him from another gig. The actual timeline: Riley left Portland, Plush’s guidance helped keep another club from hiring Riley, and THEN Riley was hired elsewhere, anyway. Whether Plush did enough to keep Riley from being hired at THAT job is subject to debate.
This situation isn’t simple. I’d respectfully suggest that the people who want the whole board to resign over this situation haven’t dug into the nuances to see how complicated this really was. Of course, neither did several USA Curling board members, and they’re gone.
Anyway, the original post (the part relating to curling) …
For my fellow curlers, here’s a quick summary of our former CEO’s appearances in various investigations:
The Yates Report, with which Plush did not cooperate, shows that Plush did a bit to hinder Paul Riley’s future employment within the NWSL after allegations of sexual misconduct were reported. See previous post.
The NWSL/NWSLPA report shows that Plush did a bit more than was reported in the Yates Report, and it says the league failed to act despite Plush’s warnings. However, the NWSL/NWSLPA report relies mostly on one source — Plush, who did cooperate with this one.
Still, the report raises one red flag, and it seems well-substantiated: “Plush told the Joint Investigative Team that the Flash had been considering Riley since October 2015, and Plush warned Lines in October 2015 that the Flash should not hire Riley but should follow up with the Thorns as to why Riley was “no longer coaching there.” Plush wrote that he was “very careful in describing the situation” with Riley because he had been informed by counsel to U.S. Soccer that he could not share the Thorns’s investigative report or its details. However, this position appears inconsistent with the email from the Thorns’s counsel transmitting the Riley report to the League, which Plush received and which did not place any restrictions on the League.”
But the main verdict on Plush is rendered on page 111, and it’s complicated. Plush says he was limited in what he could say about Riley on advice of counsel. The investigators say that’s inconsistent with email from the Thorns counsel and the fact that Plush shared some information with Sky Blue, the New Jersey team that backed away from pursuing Riley. Was it “inconsistent,” or did the advice from counsel come into play after the Thorns email and the Sky Blue conversation?
The bottom line may be how you interpret this final line in his entry on page 111: “By allowing Riley to continue coaching in the NWSL, the League conveyed its continuing implicit approval of him, despite the information Plush received and the concerns that he expressed to others.”
Some people with whom I’ve talked are interpreting “the League” as “Plush.” I don’t think that’s the case, in part because of the “despite” clause and in part because so many other people wielded at least as much power as Plush did. And Riley continued to coach long after Plush was gone.
On the whole, Plush comes across as someone who is too happy to take bad legal advice. That comes up again in the two investigations USA Curling released today. Feel free to ignore the first one, which is only two pages and is essentially a record of the investigator’s inability to get a word with anyone from US Soccer or the NWSL except for one anonymous comment: “Jeff did absolutely nothing wrong in how it was handled.”
The second investigation isn’t much better. It has four interviews — Plush, USA Curling CFO and former USSF/NWSL CFO Eric Gleason, an NWSL team owner, and someone who was a US Soccer official in 2015.
Plush confirms that he didn’t cooperate with the Yates Report on the advice of counsel, and he now recognizes that maybe he should’ve done it anyway. That raises the question of why the Yates Report doesn’t mention him at least saying he had been advised not to cooperate, and it raises the question of why he went along with the NWSL/NWSLPA investigation.
The rest of the USAC investigation casts Plush as a mostly powerless figure, beholden to lawyers and USSF officials, who did what little he could to stop Riley from being hired at an NWSL team. I covered women’s soccer during that time (and many years before and after), and I know there’s a lot of truth in this depiction. But at best, Plush is following various lawyers over a cliff. A good leader should know better.
Other than that, the investigation is flimsy. The only interviews are with Plush and people sympathetic to him.
To recap what’s happened since then: Plush resigned, as did the board chair and two other board members.
And the new management isn’t pleased with these investigations:
“It was important to engage a third-party to do this work, but the quality of these reports does not rise to the level that the Board and the curling community deserved,” noted USA Curling Board Chair Bret Jackson. “As a result, we will conduct an audit of our internal process, and learn how we can be better in the future.”
So what does this mean for USA Curling moving forward?
In social media, a few people want to see the rest of the board resign as well. I’ll disagree for two reasons:
First, the decision to keep Plush (before he resigned) doesn’t appear to be unanimous. Three days after the board announced he was sticking around, the Athletes Advisory Council issued a carefully worded statement that left the door open for further consideration. Plush resigned 12 days later, closely followed by the board chair and independent directors. It’s fair to say they didn’t just find a burning bush that told them to change their ways. Someone gave them a push behind the scenes.
Second, it’s easy to see how board members could have been misled into thinking Plush did nothing wrong. When an investigator hands over interviews with top soccer people defending him, it’s all too tempting to take that as face value. Failing to see beyond the investigator’s report is a mistake, not an act of malice. And in a sense, the investigator and the interviewees were right. He did “nothing wrong.” It’s just that, after a certain point in the timeline, he did nothing at all. It takes a bit more digging to realize his inaction was based on an unwillingness to stand up to people giving him bad advice.
So the top officials at USA Curling are gone. The new board chair and interim CEO have thrown open the discussion to see how USAC could do things better.
A National Governing Body (NGB) is vital to the success of any Olympic sport. In my next post, I’ll explain why that’s the case and why I’ll continue to be a USAC member even though I’m hardly national championship material.