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‘He’s a baaaaad man.’ Ask enough people in the more elite circles of American rugby about PRO owner and CEO Doug Schoninger, those who have worked most closely with, for and around him, and you’ll hear him described exactly that way, with the lone vowel in ‘bad’ being drawn out for emphasis.
Schoninger’s vision was grand. As the first professional rugby competition in America, PRO was supposed to stir the sleeping giant out of a slumber and be the missing link between the amateur game played on unkempt, bumpy park fields across the country and the bright lights of the international stage.
The league was officially announced last November, created five teams by March and put a product on the field in April, with 30 games playing out over five months. For the first time on American soil, people paid to watch rugby and others received paychecks to play it for them. By that standard, PRO accomplished something no other domestic competition had. But the roadblock most likely to impede PRO from realizing its potential, and the issue which may bring the league to its knees altogether, is the very purpose of its existence – professionalism.
A professional receives payment in exchange for goods or services, but in the wake of its inaugural season, PRO has left numerous unpaid coaches, players, managers, announcers and vendors.
In New York, former Director of Rugby Steve Lewis has sued his ex-employer for salary and expenses he says he’s owed. He and Schoninger are due in small claims court in February to hash it out. Lewis has also gone to the state’s labor board and filed a grievance with USA Rugby. Paul Keeler, PRO’s West Coast Director of Operations and the former head coach of the now-defunct San Francisco Rush, has also filed with the labor board in California because he says he’s owed in the neighborhood of $14,000 in unpaid salary and expenses.
Jack O’Hara, who played under Keeler in San Francisco, has also gone to California’s labor board, because Schoninger stopped paying him five paychecks ago. A trainer, who contributed to this story under the promise of anonymity, has reached out to the labor board in his state because of unpaid wages.
Numerous players are owed back pay around the league. One of them is PRO’s biggest name, Mils Muliaina. The 100-cap All Black says Schoninger owes him $20,000. Dan Power and Lou Stanfill, who announced several games throughout the season, say they’re owed thousands of dollars. Vendors are also owed thousands of dollars, including a nonprofit restaurant in Sacramento which exists solely to immerse homeless mothers in the workforce.
Since 1985, the Saint John’s Program for Real Change has worked to transform the lives of homeless mothers and their children in Sacramento, Calif. The homeless shelter doesn’t just feed and clothe those it helps, it gives them on-the-job training. That comes in the form of a gig at Plates, a restaurant situated about a wind sprint away from the Sacramento Express’s headquarters.
At Plates, the women of the shelter work as cooks, hosts, waitresses, etc., and it was there where the Express would dine for lunch each day they practiced, a perk spelled out in PRO’s player handbook. Sometimes the Plates employees would make the short walk to the team’s digs, and sometimes the players and staff would visit the restaurant space. Seeing each other most every day, the players got to know the workers, their names and their stories.
The relationship worked until the team’s bill at Plates got so high the nonprofit restaurant had to stop feeding the players. Then the Express started eating elsewhere around town, and Plates waited for Schoninger to settle his bill of over $7,000. He still hasn’t.
Issues with lunch vendors weren’t unique to Sacramento. In San Francisco, the Rush usually ate lunch at Life West, where it practiced most of the season. The same non-payment happened, and the team began eating around town. But because coaches grew tired of putting the team’s meals on their credit cards without timely reimbursement, sometimes the Rush would go without lunch, despite it being guaranteed to them via the player handbook.
Paying in a timely fashion has historically been an issue for Schoninger. A report from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), an independent organization dedicated to protecting investors by regulating brokers, reveals Schoninger, who formerly worked as a broker, has two outstanding liens against him. He owes the IRS more than $141,000 and a law firm more than $34,000.
The lack of professionalism doesn’t stop with missing payments. Players, coaches and the league’s employees were led to believe they’d be offered health care via PRO. It was even referenced multiple times in the players’ contracts, but never offered. Per the Affordable Care Act, employers with more than 50 full-time employees, or the equivalent of, are required to offer health care. PRO, employing over 100 tier-one and tier-two players and coaches for much of the year, appears to fit that description, but players were left to fend for themselves.
“There was a lot said that they didn’t provide,” said Muliaina, a World Cup champion who’s played professionally in New Zealand, Ireland and Italy.
“Operating out of the back of a van is something that’s unheard of, really. Constantly looking around for fields and being kicked off because you haven’t got a permit, there’s nothing pro in that at all.
“I really actually felt for the people, they were really trying hard to make something like this. I know in America there are pockets of enthusiasts that love the game. Unfortunately, in this instance you’ve got some really bad people trying to run something that they don’t know how to run.”
Even when Schoninger did pay, he didn’t do it in a timely manner. The boilerplate contract used for nearly all of the league’s players doesn’t exactly spell out in detail the pay schedule, but players were told they’d be paid bi-weekly. They were, for the most part, but in the era of direct deposit and auto-pay, there was no discernible pattern for when payments would be disbursed, leaving employees with gnawed-on fingernails and overdue bills throughout the season.
Schoninger tried to explain away these payment irregularities by telling Rugby Today back in June that he, then part of a three-person front office, handled payroll himself manually. He said then he’d recently brought on a bookkeeper. He never did. Instead, he continued to do it every so often on his own.
In an email to employees Tuesday alerting them all players are being terminated, Schoninger blamed USA Rugby.
“We have been having serious issues with the cooperation and the enforcement of our agreement with USA Rugby,” Schoninger wrote. “We have been actively trying to resolve our issues with USA Rugby for over four months and, unfortunately, it appears that USA Rugby will not honor the commitments they made to us.”
Among the issues Schoninger referred to are the budding Major Rugby Championship, a proposed grassroots competition amongst established American clubs that’s not sanctioned by the national governing body, and reports of the Guinness Pro 12 being interested in American expansion. He feels USA Rugby hasn’t done enough to tamp down those perceived threats to PRO’s exclusive sanctioning agreement. However, Schoninger is also incensed his sanctioning agreement hasn’t been extended, which he says was promised to him before newly minted USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne took office.
Payne, who took the post officially in August, well after Schoninger inked his sanctioning agreement with the NGB, flew to New York last week for a set of meetings, including what turned into a marathon armwrestle with Schoninger. Schoninger wanted to extend his exclusive rights, and Payne wanted Schoninger to address the many, many accusations of him not paying his players, coaches and referees, all members of USA Rugby.
As is obvious by Schoninger’s message, the meeting ended without resolution, and the letter Schoninger sent out looks like an attempt to strongarm Payne into giving him what he wants. Wouldn’t be the first time he’s used that tactic. He used it with Jack O’Hara.
At the end of the season, the league sent out a batch of new paperwork to players. One form was a document through which the players, by signing, acknowledged their official title had been changed from “professional rugby player” to “non-playing rugby employee”. This was Schoninger’s effort to save money through worker’s compensation. Most players signed it without ample explanation of how it may affect them.
Another document was a “player conditional release request form,” which players were required to sign if they wanted to play outside of PRO in the offseason. It included six conditions, not all of which were terms in the original player contract. Again, most of the league signed. One player who didn’t was Jack O’Hara. The son of a lawyer looked over both documents and thought something wasn’t right.
“They give us these forms, and I’m reading them. I’m not a lawyer. I don’t know a lot about that, but I saw on my own this is really changing all the requirements in my contract, so I don’t sign them at the time, and I go back to my parents and they agreed,” O’Hara said.
Schoninger held O’Hara’s pay hostage, with the league saying the additional paperwork was required for him to remit payment. O’Hara never gave Schoninger what he wanted, so he’s missing five paychecks.
Because of his insistence on USA Rugby upholding its commitments to PRO, and USA Rugby’s insistence on PRO upholding its commitments to USA Rugby members, Schoninger’s league hangs in the balance for the next 30 days, the length of the termination period on PRO player contracts. At the end of them, we’ll know if PRO has any pros.