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USA Rugby’s board of directors is requiring its Congress members to sign non-disclosure agreements in order to participate in this weekend’s annual meeting in Denver. Even standard preparatory information is being withheld until contracts are signed.

The introduction of the gag order, according to multiple congress members, is a response to leaks of information to the press. The national office is following suit, throwing up new barriers to information, as well, refusing to field direct questions from Congress members. Now, Congress members must funnel their correspondence with the national office through committee chairs.

Congress’ authority is outlined in USA Rugby’s bylaws. The very first charge is, “to receive and review periodic reports on the activities of [USA Rugby] and actions taken by the Board and to report back to its constituent Members.”

Requiring Congress members to sign a contract restricting them from sharing information with their constituents prohibits Congress performing its most basic function.

Like the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government are meant to check and balance each other, USA Rugby’s Congress is to hold the national office and board of directors accountable. All bylaws changes, dues raises, board appointments and substantially all sales of assets must be approved by Congress.

In other words, whose job was it to prevent the board and national office from creating Rugby International Marketing, the for-profit arm that sunk the union into millions of dollars of debt? Congress’. Who is supposed to monitor RIM now, which has been renamed “USA Rugby Partners”? Congress.  Who could have prevented the union from entering, and allegedly breaking, a sanctioning agreement with PRO Rugby that’s resulted in a lawsuit currently in arbitration? Congress.

We are barely a year removed from multiple board members resigning in disgrace for driving USA Rugby to the precipice of bankruptcy, largely because of the failures of Congress, and the board is trying to limit Congress’ ability to do any better going forward.

The move reeks of paranoia, as Congress has proven itself, time and again, a feckless group populated mostly by those seemingly more concerned with being reimbursed to travel to test matches and swill beer with fellow cronies than affecting any positive change.

Let’s look at the Congress members in my geographic union, for example. KJ Abel-Ruch and Bill Sexton delivered the congress report at the Mid-America’s 2018 annual general meeting, failing to make mention of the rash of board resignations, the financial failure of the Rugby World Cup 7s, and the resulting multi-million-dollar line of credit separating USA Rugby from bankruptcy.

As someone who circled the Congress report on the agenda that day, I can assure you any members who walked into the AGM uninformed left just as uninformed, thinking of the RWC 7s as an unmitigated success. Yet, just a couple of weeks ago, the minutes from that ’18 AGM were approved at the outset of the ’19 AGM. And they included discussion (which did not take place) of the aforementioned bad news.

So, ask yourself, are USA Rugby’s paid administrators refusing to take questions, and is its board requiring a contractual gag order, because Congress members like Abel-Ruch and Sexton, who not only withhold pertinent information from their constituents, but have their doing so covered up by inaccurate, deceptive meeting minutes, are dangerously frivolous with sensitive information?

I can help - no. All the gag order does is neuter the couple of handfuls of Congressmen who took their roles and responsibilities seriously enough to be alarmed by the decisions of the national office and board enough to get that information to USA Rugby’s membership via the press.

Specifically, the board’s issue isn’t Congress preventing, affecting or monitoring its actions (because it’s traditionally refused to do that job anyway), but rather communicating those actions and their results to the membership. In other words, the paid and appointed leaders of a membership organization are actively preventing their members from being informed.

The current board likes to think of itself as the "new board". Technically, many of the members are new. Some, like Jeremiah Johnson aren't. He'll finally leave his board seat after this weekend's meeting, as a new Congressional rep will be elected to replace him. He, despite being a part of the "old board" that nearly bankrupted the union, survived a censure and served his full term. 

Even with the new faces, the "new board" isn't simply performing the "old board's" tricks. It's actually greasing the wheels to make future catastrophic decisions even easier to execute than the old ones.