Thorne: To Regain Player Control, USAU Should Hire New CEO

Thoughts from the USAU Board candidates

Henry Thorne.

This article was written by Henry Thorne, one of the candidates for the two at-large positions on the USA Ultimate Board of Directors that are up for election through December 23rd. All seven board candidates have been offered an opportunity to write an essay and appear on a special edition of the Deep Look podcast this week. USAU members can vote in the election through their online account.

I’ve been on the Ultimate Players Association/USA Ultimate board for 20 of the last 23 years, and I am seeking to return to the board to solve an urgent problem. The CEO has consolidated power to such an extent that player control of the sport is about to be lost forever. There is a unique opportunity to solve this right now because his contract expires at the end of 2021. I’ve replaced the organization’s CEO three times; it’s a very difficult job and I know how to get it done.  As my experience is specifically tailored for this crucial task, I offer to serve for one year to complete this then resign in favor of a candidate whose background and experience more fully represent what USA Ultimate members envision for the future.

When USAU hired Dr. Tom Crawford, we felt lucky, lucky to have been able to recruit someone from the top of the sporting world to lead our fledgling sport. With his sporting Ph.D. and decades of experience consulting for top tier professional teams and starting sporting businesses as an entrepreneur, he was a perfect fit.

And Tom provided precisely what we needed at that moment in time: an ability to grow and connect to the rest of the world of sports. During his tenure, the USAU budget tripled and its membership doubled. He connected us with and secured multi-year contracts with leaders in sports broadcasting: ESPN and CBS. Working with Robert “Nob” Rauch and WFDF, he made steady inroads towards getting ultimate to be a showcase sport, possibly in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics Games, which would make ultimate much more visible and drive growth and dollar flow into the sport.

This is a path that is important. But to me, it’s not as important as ensuring that the ultimate playing experience retains and grows its vitality, joy, and passion: that comes from players having control of the sport. Ultimate is not just the most fun game on the planet; it is also a vibrant and progressive community, where thousands of people thrive because players have authority and control both on the field and off the field. If you take away the “player control” at either level, this energy, passion, and investment are compromised. Why? Because people support what they help to create, and they are the ones who most intimately know what needs to be created.

While we’ve made progress connecting with the wide world of sports, we’ve been losing ground with the player voice and influence. The strife was described by Maelyn Divinski, former Communications manager for USAU, when she was interviewed in March:

But you’re not going to have full control and there’s always going to be tension, then, between USAU and the community, especially if the community doesn’t accept that it’s not a player-owned sport anymore.

This is the heart of the problem I seek to repair. Dr. Crawford is a visionary CEO. Like most other senior executives, he believes his job is to set the vision first, then secure support from the board who, in turn, gets key constituencies to align with that vision. This is a typical and effective strategy for a for-profit corporation, but that’s not us. We’re a community that believes in a principle, the principle that “player control” grows the individual and the community. The result is a community that cherishes the sport and works incredibly hard to make the world better with it. We’re the sport that generates gender and racial equity meetings at tournaments all across the country and then the world. We’re the sport that generates leaders that create social justice organizations like AGE UP and Ultimate Peace. We’re the sport that looks at ourselves, sees our flaws, and works tirelessly to overcome them. We need to keep empowering people on and off the field to continue to generate this positive leadership in the world.

Tom, instead, fights this feeling of empowerment amongst the players and even has contempt for it. As a result, his organization resists the desires of the membership and responds to them in ways that appear to be tone deaf and often counter to their will. Recently, during the Strategic Planning Tour, the community called for Gender Equity to be the top goal. Instead, it was demoted to top “Guiding Principle,” a new, non-actionable category.

After 12 years of excellent service to the sport, Dr. Tom Crawford’s current contract expires at the end of 2021. I think it’s an ideal time to move towards hiring a CEO that supports the underlying principle of player control. The world has changed in this last year. The pandemic has altered every aspect of our lives, and systemic social injustices demand our attention as never before. We have problems to solve and our community is full of bright passionate people who are up for the challenge.  My hope, and something I will work for every day, is to ensure our next CEO will get up every morning and think: What does the community want, and how can I help them get it?

You can read more about Henry Thorne’s candidacy on USA Ultimate’s website.

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