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When Dan Payne took the reins, I was torn. There was obvious excitement – after a decade of the untrustworthy Nigel Melville, we now had a person in USA Rugby’s top position who understood grass roots rugby in America from recent first-hand experience, he’d worked at a high level in sports administration, and most importantly, he was someone I trusted to always act tirelessly, selflessly and honestly for rugby in America.
However, that excitement was tempered by the changes to the position. With the creation of Rugby International Marketing, USA Rugby’s CEO would no longer have as much control as before. He or she would have no formal or direct influence on driving the union’s revenue in the right direction, as all of the traditional revenue streams were now slid under RIM, which had its own board and CEO.
RIM’s chief executive is David Sternberg, who has no connection to grassroots rugby, other than the fact that his son started playing recently. High level business experience? Yes. But that doesn’t instill trust, especially when coupled with RIM’s dubious origin story. That USA Rugby’s money was essentially reliant on one person who the rugby community had no reason to trust and the day-to-day, and it’s worth repeating, not the money, was under the guy we all knew and trusted, was at least awkward.
The official, public reason Payne cited for stepping down after the Rugby World Cup Sevens is family. He has a very young family that’s set to get bigger this summer. That’s a fact. Don’t expect Payne to ever publicly say so, but that’s not the entire story.
That’s an uncomfortable stance to take – some will read it as though I’m challenging Payne’s commitment to family, as though I’m insinuating he’s not a family man willing to put what matters most over his job. It’s not. I have no doubt Payne is an exceptional father, just like he was an exceptional wrestler, back rower, coach and administrator. And I’m certain the increased family time is more than welcome. But I also have no doubt this very talented, qualified, capable man will be employed somewhere soon, and it’s a shame it won’t be for USA Rugby.
Whenever someone steps down from a big job, the press release or announcement focuses on legacy. What did this person do while in their role that was notable or worthwhile?
In that for Payne, the on-the-field success was mentioned – men’s 15s winning back-to-back Americas Rugby Championship titles, women’s 15s making the World Cup semis, and both the men and women competing in the Olympics in 7s. But, really, Payne had little to do with the on-the-field results. He’d tell you that.
But the highlight Payne brought up himself, the shining accomplishment of his time with USA Rugby, was hitting budget in 2017. Make no mistake, that was a magic trick. In the face of a massive cash shortfall, the bankruptcy of a major sponsor, potential litigation with PRO Rugby, a high-performance department with a tendency to overspend, shakeup in the chief financial officer position, and a fixed licensing fee from RIM, Payne hit budget.
But hitting budget is hitting budget. For any functional organization, it should be a given, a foregone conclusion and expectation, not the signature achievement of a CEO. That is not an indictment on Payne’s performance, but rather on the magnitude of the dumpster fire he inherited.
That’s the real story. "In times of adversity, you learn a lot about those around you and even more about yourself,” Payne said in the announcement of his resignation. For a former Eagle, a former Eagle coach and an athletic director, being the chief executive of your sport’s national governing body should be a dream job, not a time of adversity.
The lament here isn’t that being the USA Rugby CEO is hard. It isn’t that Payne didn’t have more of an enjoyable time while in office. It’s that the organization has been so twisted, in such bad shape, that a guy like Payne has been so obviously ready to move on for a while.
Remember, Payne is a resilient dude. He was an All-American wrestler who nearly made the Olympics, and when that didn’t pan out, he picked up rugby at a late age and reached the pinnacle, playing in a World Cup. This guy exudes resilience, but the USA Rugby CEO position was made so unnecessarily hard by its predecessor, its board, its commercially-driven subsidiary and a long track record of poor self-governance, he’s decided to step back.
That’s a real loss for the American rugby community, but more than that, it should be the latest knell from the alarm clock, you know that annoying one that gets louder and more frequent the longer you ignore it. If USA Rugby’s role in the PRO Rugby debacle didn’t get your attention, if the leadership that guided the union from one kit sponsorship with a company that would go belly up and cost USA Rugby gobs of money into another that can’t hold up its end of the bargain, the same leadership that didn’t realize getting into the over-the-top live-sports-streaming business was going to be too costly and competitive and difficult, didn’t get your attention, this should.
Luckily, Payne, along with a slow-learning Congress and others, have put enough pressure on the aforementioned leadership to get them to give a RIM board seat to USA Rugby’s CEO. For Payne, it’s too little, too late. But hopefully, thanks in large part to the work put in by Payne, USA Rugby will have it together enough for the next person to flourish. This coup ranks above the budget for me.
Payne’s reign wasn’t perfect. He talked a lot about youth, but at the end of the day his hands were tied, and while he was able to place regional development officers, he wasn’t able to accomplish what he set out to in that arena. I was hopeful, considering his background, he’d be able to set college rugby up for success. He wasn’t able to do much there, either.
I was hopeful he’d purge the national office of those who’d overstayed their welcome. This is the area where I’m most disappointed – he could have had more impact here, even considering the many fires he didn’t create but had to put out or manage. But he chose to, through increased accountability, make it so uncomfortable for the underachievers or incompetent that they’d leave on their own. You can coax a pest, a squirrel or raccoon, out of your attic, but you have to exterminate cockroaches. There are still a couple of cockroaches roaming the halls in Lafayette.
All that said, we’ll never know what Payne would or could have accomplished had he been given the resources to do so. And that’s the point. That’s the shame of it all.
Thank you, Dan Payne, for always working tirelessly, selflessly and honestly for American rugby day in and day out. Thank you for leaving the office in a better shape than you found it. Here’s to hoping whoever replaces you does the same.