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USA Rugby interim board chair Barbara O’Brien appeared on Rugby Wrap Up recently – her first media appearance in the role. The brief interview was revealing to some degree.
O’Brien humbly admitted she wasn’t cut out for the role of board chair for USA Rugby, given her lack of experience in the sports business world, and that she accepted the responsibility on the condition of it being interim. She made it clear the search for a permanent chair is active.
The former Lieutenant Governor of Colorado has been on the board for a little over a year and came into the role of chair after all other at-large board members, save Dean Barrett who resigned innocent, were run off for their part in the union’s recent strategic and financial failures. Until World Rugby vice chair Gus Pichot was ratified to fill one void at the end of August, O’Brien chaired a board made up of transitional member Paul Santinelli, international athletes Phaidra Knight and Todd Clever, and Congress representative Jeremiah Johnson, the lone holdover from the board which landed USA Rugby in hot water.
“Part of what we’re trying to heal in the culture of USA Rugby is a very deep lack of transparency,” O’Brien said on camera.
However, when seating the controversial Pichot, who has fielded accusations of acting in his own self interests in his roles with World Rugby, SANZAAR and the Argentine union, including an August report from the Sydney Morning Herald, O’Brien’s board failed to be transparent about the cloud of doubt surrounding the candidate.
When there's a vacancy, the nominating committee puts forward one candidate per seat. Then the board approves that candidate, and the final step is for Congress to ratify the selection. In this instance, with World Rugby claiming a board seat as collateral for loaning USA Rugby millions of dollars to back its own event, World Rugby nominated Pichot and the board approved.
Despite the board itself being aware of the August report and asking a few questions of its own on the matter, it did not pass that information on to Congress for its consideration in ratifying Pichot, displaying a disregard for transparency.
On Sept. 29, Congress will again be asked to ratify three new board members. They’re supposed to figure out who they’ll be voting on Friday, with information on the candidates being provided to Congress by the board and the nominating committee.
O’Brien appeared confused on the makeup of the nominating committee, the same body which nominated her, during her interview. She incorrectly referred to the nominating committee as that, “of Congress”.
When host Matt McCarthy tried to clarify, saying one member of the committee represented Congress, and the other four were picked by the board, she said, “No, not necessarily.”
She incorrectly said the current necessary makeup of the committee is, “two player representatives, a representative from Congress, a representative of the board, so it’s a mixture.”
As dictated by USA Rugby’s bylaws, the nominating committee is to consist of 3-5 members, including at least one Congress member, one board member and one qualified athlete. The chair of the committee must be the Congress rep, but every other member of the committee is appointed by the board.
O’Brien discussed some of the recommendations from SRI, an independent firm brought in to review USA Rugby’s governance structure. She said one is for two separate nominating committees to be involved in the board nominations process. Another is for Congress to get a second seat on the board. Neither change can be voted on or adopted until at least 45 days after the upcoming meeting, as is the process for bylaw changes.
O’Brien said the board will continue with nine seats. Assuming all three open at-large positions are filled Sept. 29 – Congress has never failed to ratify a board selection – there will be nine members on the board. So if the additional Congress rep to the board is approved in November or later, there may not even be a seat open for that rep.
It’s possible the additional Congress seat would come from the one Santinelli is currently filling. There is some confusion around whether his seat is interim, transitional, or if he’ll stay on as stated in the bylaws. If his seat is to be given to an additional yet-to-be-approved Congress rep, more changes to the bylaws may be needed.
When asked why World Rugby needed to be meddling in American rugby’s affairs and why Pichot was the person selected, O'Brien disingenuously responded, “because we need a better line of communication with World Rugby.”
“World Rugby sanctions us to then sanction USA matches and tournaments, and there hasn’t been great communication in the past,” she continued, “so this guarantees that the expertise of World Rugby is in our deliberations and makes sure we have much better communications with the international governing body than we’ve had in the past.”
World Rugby has a seat on USA Rugby’s board as collateral for the loan taken to cover losses from the Rugby World Cup Sevens, not as a strategic decision to better communication. When the loan is repaid, World Rugby loses its seat.
Pichot is the vice chair of World Rugby’s executive committee, on which former USA Rugby board chair Bob Latham sits. The Dallas attorney has served on the same committee since 2011, predating the tenures of Pichot and World Rugby CEO Brett Gosper, so USA Rugby has long had a direct line of communication to World Rugby’s top decision-making body.
Perhaps the most troubling answer O’Brien gave, though, was to the question of how the loan would be repaid. She said USA Rugby would renegotiate some details around the RWC Sevens and previous licensing agreements, but most of her answer revolved around philanthropy, meaning donations.
After USA Rugby’s old board abused its power and mismanaged millions, jeopardizing the health of a membership organization which collects upwards of $5 million in membership dues annually, the plan to recovery revolves around members entrusting even more money to the new regime.