Change is in the Air at 2021 USA Water Polo General Assembly

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From the USA Water Polo General Assembly, the best polo news in a long time: Junior Olympics should be back this summer. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Restrictions on travel and public gathering due to the novel coronavirus forced the 2021 USA Water Polo General Assembly—typically a lively gathering of polo movers and shakers from all over America—to be held virtually last Saturday. Streamed on YouTube, with a live Zoom question and answer session, high-production values and excellent pacing the 2021 version of USAWP’s biennial meet and greet was engaging and informative.

It was also a reminder of what all U.S. polo supporters crave—the energy and passion of a live event.

USAWP_Gen_Assemble_logo“Like so many events over the past twelve months, it is one that we missed hosting in person,” CEO Christopher Ramsey said in a post-event recap emailed to membership.

In spite of no limited connections due to digital distancing, the message from assembly presenters was overwhelming upbeat—no surprise as USAWP looks to emerge from one of the most challenging health events in our nation’s history and get back to what the organization does best: growing water polo in America.

“Coming out of our bi-annual national public assembly, USA Water Polo is in solid alignment with its tens of thousands of members, who clearly expressed what is to be our mandate – to focus on our return to play,” USA Water Polo said in a statement provided to Swimming World.

“With our Board of Directors ratified through an overwhelming majority vote, our leadership and water polo community are working as one team to get us back into pools across the country and to see our national teams succeed in Tokyo. The best is yet to come!”

This year’s event was noteworthy for a number of reasons, most important of which was the selection of William Smith as new USAWP board chair. That, the muffling of a recent drumbeat of criticism by a group of seven former players and coaches and the announcement that polo competition is back, including national JOs this summer, meant that membership was well-served in USAWP’s first public event of the new year.

A loyal foot soldier jumps to first in line

The assembly’s lead story was Smith’s elevation to board chair effective June 1st. To the surprise of no one, Michael Graff, who has spent the last 15 years leading the USAWP board, announced the unanimous elevation of his long-time collaborator, who has served as a member of the USAWP board in 12 of the past 14 years.

[Bill Smith Elected as New Board Chair for USA Water Polo]

In what was essentially his farewell to membership—though CEO Ramsey said in a recent interview he expects that the long-time board chair will remain active with the organization—Graff thanked key people who he has been involved with over his long and successful tenure with the organization.

He also admonished the breakaway faction for “doing real harm” to the sport by unfairly criticizing leadership—something Graff, who has been exceptionally generous with both his time and financial support, said is “not right, and it should stop.”

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USAWP Board Chair Mike Graff. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Graff said the dissenters are “unwitting pawns under the influence of a major law firm”—a reference to Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, who have sued Ramsey, Christy Sicard, USAWP’s Senior Director, Membership and SafeSport Compliance and the organization itself for alleged negligence related to Bahram Hojreh, accused of sexually abusing his players.

“Why are they dissatisfied? I really don’t know,” Graff—who has helped transform USAWP into a financially secure and healthy organization—said wistfully. “I know you can’t win them all, but I’d like think you could.”

Those who Graff referred to are Rafael Ruano and a band of long-serving polo advocates who three weeks ago took the bold step of launching a petition demanding that Graff and Ramsey—as well as the entire board of directors—be scrapped due to their response to allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by individuals affiliated with the organization.

[A Moment of Truth at the USA Water Polo General Assembly?]

In years past, the general assembly would likely have offered an opportunity for dissenters to pepper the board and Ramsey with their frustrations with how USAWP handled the Hojreh situation as well as alleged instances of sexual harassment by Perry Korbakis.

This year, the fundamental obstacle to dissent was format. The Q&A session—where USAWP leadership takes questions submitted from the audience—was both impersonal and dictated by the structure of Zoom. Whomever ran the meeting dictated the flow, or lack thereof, of information.

This curtailed whatever points the protesters might have intended to present to those who participated in the virtual event. It is also uncertain how many members tuned in to the Q&A session; during the first half of the meeting, only 140 participants were listed on YouTube.

The news is promising—especially a return to play in the near future.

Ramsey provided his CEO update, affirming that despite the devastation wrought by COVID-19, USAWP’s financial health is sound. Finishing in the black this year is a major accomplishment, one which was affirmed by Scott Aubin, Finance Director, who pointed out that USAWP cancelled 75% of its events in 2020. Ramsey said that the organization was able to take advantage of government funding to manage shortfalls.

In perhaps the day’s best news—from the standpoint of the organization’s thousands of polo athletes—was the confirmation by events manager Ryan Cunnane that national Junior Olympics is expected to take place this summer. The world’s largest water polo tournament, last year for the first time in its four-decade history, the JOs was postponed due to the coronavirus.

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John Mann (right) is back. Photo Courtesy: Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

The dates for the boys’ session are July 17-20-25; the girls as well as 10U/12U mixed will take place from July 22-25. This is as long as things improve with COVID-19; the biggest question mark for the country is: how will the rollout of millions of dosages of vaccine impact the virus which currently has infected 27 million and taken the lives of 464,000 Americas.

A report from John Abdou and Brenda Villa regarding the Racial Equity and Reform Task Force put together earlier this year in response to racial unrest following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. This endeavor, which Abdou pointed out has already drawn board-directed funding, is expected to spend the next year and a half advocating for increased access to pools; as Clarke Weatherspoon, a task force member, said in a recent interview, the expectation is that a decade of advocacy is necessary to make a dent in discriminatory practices against people of color.

[On The Record with Clarke Weatherspoon, USAWP Racial Equity & Reform Task Force Member]

Growing the USAWP Board

In specific structural changes, in addition to voting for Smith as their new leader, four current board members—Laura Muller, Sheldon Pang, Walt Price and Alfonso Pulido—were extended for another four years. John Mann, a two-time Olympian (2012, 2016), was added to the current leadership group as an athlete member. A member of the 2012 and 2016 men’s Olympic teams, Mann, along with Villa, Jessica Steffens and Peter Varellas, represents a vital constituency on the USAWP board.

This group not only have a direct connection to the highest level of the sport—all of them have competed in multiple Olympic Games—they also represent what will be a growing presence on the board, which will expand membership from its current 20 to 24.

A function of the Amateur Sports Act, the expansion also mandates that athlete representation on national governing body boards to be a minimum of 33 percent, meaning that the when four new board members are selected, they will have been rostered on an Olympic Games, World Championship or Pan American Games team within the last ten years.

This may be the most effective means of overcoming those individuals who have taken shots at USAWP. Their grievances may ultimately be drowned out by a new generation of board members, ones who have experienced first-hand the achievements that Graff, Ramsey and current USAWP leadership have accomplished.

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