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USA Rugby Congress member Steve Lewis sat with Rugby Today head writer Pat Clifton for an hour-long episode of the Rugby PatCast to discuss the developing and ongoing story of USA Rugby’s governance failures. Lewis unloads on the outgoing board, his fellow Congress members, and the nonsensical organizational structure that allowed it all to happen.

What’s left of USA Rugby’s leadership structure constantly has its paddles in the water these days. There are five vacant board seats that need filling – including one vacated or soon to be vacated by Bob Kimmitt, the latest casualty of Rugby International Marketing’s financial failure – a new CEO to find, RIM’s shop needs to be cleaned completely and probably closed, and there’s the matter of a lawsuit with PRO Rugby.

One of the yeomen who has been instrumental in guiding the reckoning of the RIM failure and the reconstruction of the new USA Rugby is Congress member Steve Lewis. He was the first and only Congress member to cast a vote of no confidence in USA Rugby’s now decimated board last February, he’s personally initiated and successfully seen through multiple petitions to recall responsible board members, and he’s fought for changes to governance going forward.

Lewis joined Congress after the fallout of PRO Rugby, of which he was the director of rugby. The league, owned by Doug Schoninger, was sanctioned by USA Rugby, a move approved by the board. PRO went down in flames when Schoninger stopped paying his bills and employees. Seeking answers for why Schoninger was ever granted sanctioning, Lewis joined Congress.

Lewis helped orchestrate the ouster of Keck, who survived a recall vote when the requisite two-thirds majority wasn’t reached. However, a simple majority did vote to get rid of Keck, leading to his resignation. Most recently, he initiated the petition to recall chairman Will Chang, Rob King, Kimmitt and Congress rep to the board Jeremiah Johnson.

“It was communicated that if the petition was filed they would probably resign rather than go to public vote. Certainly, that’s what happened with Chang and King – they decided to quit before it got public,” Lewis told Rugby Today.

“Bob Kimmitt was heavily involved in the D.C. game and had already agreed to not continue with his term, so I believe he handed in his resignation.”

Johnson went to a vote. 26 of his fellow Congress members elected to retain Johnson, while nine voted to remove him.  

“Black night for Congress in the sense that it failed to censure one of its own, protected one of its own, and it allowed a guy who is absolutely involved in every misstep of the way in the last 18 months to survive on very dubious grounds, in my opinion,” Lewis said of the vote.

“Congress chose to protect one of its own. I think that’s a bad look for Congress, and I think once the American rugby community sees that and has a look at the facts, this is all going to come out, I think that was a poor decision by Congress.”

Johnson has arguably been the only board member with his hands dirty from the grassroots game. He’s still an active referee and club member. He is in touch with the membership. He’s well liked.

Lewis says the tenets of Johnson’s defense were that RIM was conceived before he came on board, he didn’t have clear marching orders, the position of Congress rep to the board is inherently conflicted, and he tried his best. But, argues Lewis, Johnson, having sat on the board since 2015, is responsible for USA Rugby’s leadership failures, nonetheless.

“He’s a committed rugby man. He’s put his time in. He will put his time in, and for that we should all be grateful,” said Lewis.

“But the case I made for his recall is we were not there to judge Jeremiah the individual or Jeremiah our friend. We were there to judge his performance as a board member, and on that the record was pretty clear – he was a member of that failed board and should not be exonerated or excused just because he’s one of us.”  

The board currently sits with just four of its nine seats filled. Only one is filled by an at-large board member, those who make up the majority of a full board and who are selected via the infamous nominating committee. That lone at-large member is Barbara O’Brien, ratified last year.

The only other board members include Johnson and two international athletes – Phaidra Knight and Todd Clever. Lewis, along with others on the board, have been pushing to seat a couple of transitional members so the union could function while permanent solutions are worked through via the normal process, which wouldn’t see new board members ratified until at least September.

Recently, a contentious change to the bylaws was made to allow for two transitional board members to be placed in the meantime. The candidates will still be put forward by the nominating committee, and they could be permanent board candidates or Congress members acting as band-aids.

“There was a change to the bylaws, suggested by Congress and approved by the board belatedly, belatedly, and it was a struggle to get them to agree even to this – that two transitional board members should be appointed for a 90-day period just to get us past the World Cup. So that has been approved and the Congress nominating committee is finalizing those names,” said Lewis.

“This is the problem with the nominating committee – it’s who they recommend. We don’t know who the available candidates are, we don’t get a slate of candidates, we just have to ratify yes or no who they propose. That’s a problem.”

Lewis also discussed one of the greater issues facing USA Rugby – apathy. The board was granted the rope to hang itself by a largely apathetic, naive Congress. Congress, which is supposed to represent USA Rugby’s membership, is seated dubiously by a membership base even more apathetic and naive than its leadership.

“There’s a big disconnect between the grassroots and what’s going on in governance. And it only really hits home when you have a crisis like this, this RIM failure which will impact budgets for the second half of the year. It’s only when people start to be personally affected, i.e. an age grade program lacking funding, or national team has a shorter camp because it can’t afford it, or they take less players,” said Lewis.

“That’s the only time people actually start to connect the dots – failed board, screwed budget, affects my rugby. If things are going well, we don’t really get that.

“We’re at a stage where it’s not gone well, it will now start to impact people this second half of this year. There’s more pain to come. There will be a little squealing.”  

Just as the USA Rugby’s outgoing board failed its membership, so did Congress in its role as the membership’s watchdog. In the spring of 2017, Lewis was the lone vote of no confidence in the board. Fast forward a year, and the majority of Congress votes to recall board member Chad Keck.

That sea change happened for two major reasons, one of which was the early pressure put on by those like Tony Ridnell, a former Eagle and former/current board candidate who raised public concern over USA Rugby’s leadership.

“Initially, there was some public agitation by Tony and some of his cohorts. It was absolutely necessary, and they’ve been proven absolutely correct,” said Lewis.

“This whole notion that Tony was divisive and toxic – he’s a terrific rugby man with a passion for the game, a passion for rugby. He’s at the tip of the spear, and actually his effort should be applauded.”

The second impetus for the polar change in Congress’ state of alertness was internal pressure applied by those like Lewis. Congress had to have its nose shoved in the pile on the floor before conceding a mess had been made.  

“We got from A to B not because Congress really woke up, but because things were so bad, they couldn’t not wake up,” said Lewis.

“Congress is a dysfunctional, unrepresentative organization that needs to take a good look in the mirror and needs to be restructured. It’s 46 people, drawing theoretically from four different areas [club, college, youth and international athletes] of the American rugby community. That was intended to provide representation. You can’t have decisions made by 46 people. You can’t even have conference calls.”

Lewis’ own story of getting on Congress is sufficient evidence that change is necessary.

“I applied. No one else applied. Bingo, I’m on Congress. I would suggest that maybe 20-25 percent of Congress members are actually voted upon. I would also suggest they don’t particularly liaise with their community or the constituency,” he argued.

“I would believe that any part of a coming governance review, once we get the board populated and move on to happier, brighter days, get a new CEO, we’re going to turn back around and have a long, hard think about what Congress is and why it doesn’t work.”

Even in the face of adversity, the national teams are thriving between the lines, the first World Cup on American soil is a month away, and there’s new blood about ready to be pumped into the union’s beating heart – the board.

“In three months’ time we could have a brand new, competent board, and then we could have a new CEO,” said Lewis. “It’s always darkest before the dawn, and it’s pretty dark right now. But we’ll come out of this with a new governance structure, and I think there’s only positives ahead.”

Listen to the full interview via The Rugby PatCast.