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Money. More specifically, the lack of it that his players are paid for their tremendous efforts, and what he sees as the inevitable repercussion. This haunts Team USA head coach Mike Friday, who starts his fourth season at the helm this weekend with the Silicon Valley 7s.
“We have got to reposition the boys’ salaries,” he told Rugby Today. “They’re below the poverty line. We’ve got to find the way to commercially ensure that we have a program that’s properly resourced.”
The highest paid contracted 7s Eagle makes $24,000 a year. The full-time guys all live in the San Diego metropolitan area and train daily at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., all of which is encompassed by San Diego County, where the median household income is $63,400.
For the most part, the 7s players are single adults, not families of four, you might say. Let’s do the math. With 20-percent of your income going to federal taxes and eight-percent going to the state, $24,000 a year roughly equates to $1,440 in take-home pay every month.
The average rent for a one-bedroom in San Diego County is $1,640. So, living on your own is out of the question. The average two-bedroom goes for $1,972. Add $108 a month for internet, utilities and your The Rugby Channel subscription, and the monthly nut is $1,040 per person. Thank goodness you’re in San Diego saving money on things like air conditioning and heat and you get free meals at the EATC.
But you’ve got to get from your home to work every day. The campus is kind of isolated and surrounded by hills, tucked in which are housing options you can’t independently afford, so you need a car. Take another $150 a month for your car insurance, cell phone bill and fuel.
At the end of the month, you’re left with $250 of disposable income. God forbid you have a pet or a significant other. Whether you’re a father without a college education like Maka Unufe, or you’re a single guy sitting on a degree that cost upwards of $200,000 like Madison Hughes and Danny Barrett, stretching $250 over a month is a tall task. Let’s hope your car doesn’t break down or you get a speeding ticket on the way to training.
It bears repeating that $24,000 is the top end of what Eagles make. The low end is paid in the form of a dorm room and a meal card.
“When you’re 21, 22, you don’t need much,” Friday told Rugby Today. “You come out of college and it’s not so bad, but by the time you get to 25 or 26, the program has invested four years in you and you’re at your maturing age. But all of your mates have graduated college and are now doing really well on Wall Street or really well in their profession and they’re on $80,000 and you’re sat there on $24,000 and you’re going, what am I doing with my life, and you start making choices you wouldn’t normally make until you’re 30.”
Madison Hughes and Garrett Bender are 25. Maka Unufe is 26. Martin Iosefo, Brett Thompson, Carlin Isles and Danny Barrett are 27. Matai Leuta is 28. Folau Niua and Perry Baker are over 30.
“We can’t afford to lose them, and we don’t want to lose them, and nor should we, because they’re hitting their prime just as they should be going balls out for the 2020 Olympics,” added Friday. “They’re questioning where’s their life going because they can’t take their girlfriend out for dinner. That’s the dramatic part of it all.”
Olympians have to make sacrifices. They do so in other sports, too, like rowing, team handball and Olympic biathlon (that one where they ski around and occasionally take a break to shoot stuff). But, in those sports, the USA isn’t competing against wealthy national governing bodies and a world’s worth of professional leagues for their athletes, like in rugby.
Forget about the fact that the two teams which pay their players the most and have multi-year contracts, South Africa and England, finished first and second in the World last season, and the fact that some of their players are making somewhere in the neighborhood of triple what the Eagles do. There are two real predators when it comes to taking players from the 7s Eagles – professional 15s and the real world.
(Editor’s note: The American rugby community always seems to just be resigned to the fact that it’s okay for guys like Thretton Palamo and Blaine Scully to spend their best years playing in the United Kingdom in games we don’t get to see too much of, instead of playing 10 times a year for Team USA on the HSBC World Series, in addition to the Silicon Valleys, Pan-Am Games, Olympic qualifiers, World Cups and actual Olympics. I, for one, am not. But that’s a topic for a different story.)
The players lost to the real world, a nine-to-five existence or some other vocation that promises more than $250 in spendable money at the end of each month, is tougher to swallow. Since Friday came on board prior to the 2014/2015 season, we’ve seen fewer and fewer of those losses. But, over time, there have been plenty - Colin Hawley and Peter Tiberio come to mind.
That’s partially because the stakes have risen under Friday with Rio getting closer and then actually happening. But it’s also because he’s good at what he does, and that’s resulted in more wins than ever before. Winning helps keep a lot of fires manageable. So does a good sales job.
“You’re pioneers. It’s not an easy path, and you’re not going to get well remunerated for it, but it’s not about what you get paid. It’s about what you create and leave for the people who follow you, because they’ll always talk about the pioneers that started it. If we achieve that on our journey, we are creating something that money can’t replace, because you’ll always be known as the originals,” Friday tells his charges.
“That’s a powerful thing, because no one can ever take that from you. This group can position USA on the map, and then it’s about how we leverage off it. I think that’s the romance, that’s half the dream, that’s what young men chase.”
Who’s ready to run through a brick wall?
The problem is, running through a brick wall wears on you.
“We’re lucky we’ve got the World Cup at the end of the year. But after that it’s a two-year ride into 2020, and it’s like, ‘Here we go again. I’ve heard it all before, Mike. You said it would change,’” said Friday, channeling his inner-player.
“That concerns me. There does come a point where you’ve been bashed that much in the corner, and you’re like, I can’t take no more hits. And it’s not because you don’t want to play the game. Those points do come.”
USA Rugby introduced full-time contracts for the 7s teams in 2011. Six years on, with the Rio Olympics behind us, the players aren’t in much of a better financial situation than they were back then. There was an uptick in the six months leading up to Rio, where players made the equivalent of a $40,000 salary, but that was for just six months. Then the contracts came crashing back to Earth.
Despite nominal financial gains, the team has gotten considerably better on the field. The men were on the brink of relegation the season before Friday arrived, and now they’re the fifth-ranked team in the world. They were given a 10-percent chance of qualifying for Rio, and they qualified anyway.
All-time try and cap records have been broken in that same time frame. Perry Baker led the world in points and tries and is a finalist for World Rugby 7s player of the year. Incredible, unfathomable. So is the fact that the Eagles haven’t been properly financially rewarded.
“The boys have been absolutely first class. Their commitment to the shirt, to the jersey, to the Eagles and being pioneers to try and bring the game forward and create these role models we can leverage off – they’re delivering on their end of the bargain, so we’ve got to find a way.”
The Eagles have overperformed and been underpaid. That much is inarguable. But that’s not the point. That’s not what keeps Friday awake at night. It’s that, because of their pay, he’ll wake up with a phone call from Barrett, Baker, Hughes or Isles one day, and they’ll say they’re done.
“That day is coming,” Friday said.
People are helping. The Golden Eagles have been great. In addition to raising capital, they’ve provided internship and outside income opportunities, much like an old boys group might do for a club. But the United States Olympic Committee subsidies are largely fixed, and the national governing body is broke. Friday has managed to fit performance bonuses in the budget, so if the team makes the top eight, they get a little pocket cash. If they make the semis, they get a bit more, so on and so forth.
But, as a player, you can’t budget that money. ‘Sorry kids, daddy’s team missed out on the quarterfinals due to point differential, so no Christmas presents this year.’ Or, ‘I was going to pay that traffic ticket, officer, but I knocked on the game winner in Dubai, so I can’t afford it.’
It is a privilege to play rugby. It’s a privilege to play it professionally, to play for your national team, to get to crisscross the globe banking insanely awesome life experiences. But if we want our Olympic national teams to reach their potential, both on the field and in growing the game, the athletes need more money. And they need it now. Full stop.