Commentary: USA Water Polo Will Emerge from COVID-19 Scarred But Perhaps Wiser

Photo Courtesy: Natalie De Gante

Editor’s Note: This is the final in a series of articles examining the health of the national governing body for U.S. water polo in the wake of Bahram Hojreh’s criminal and civil sexual abuse cases and the coronavirus pandemic that has resulted in more than 500,000 American deaths.

Other articles include:
SPECIAL REPORT: When Water Polo Play Becomes Sexual Abuse
Banned Coach Bahram Hojreh Seen at St. Pete Event; Prompts USA Water Polo Response
USA Water Polo Grievance Raises Many Questions, Provides Few Answers
Appearances Aside, Lingering Sex Abuse Controversy at the Heart of USA Water Polo
A Moment of Truth at the USA Water Polo General Assembly?
On The Record with USA Water Polo’s Chris Ramsey: Present, Past, Future
Change is in the Air at 2021 USA Water Polo General Assembly
Terence Ma, Former VP of USA Water Polo, Reflects on Leadership

Some have wondered why I devoted much of my time during a pandemic digging into a negative story on USA Water Polo. It’s a question I’ve asked myself many times the past three months.

Initially, I was reacting to revelations last October that USAWP’s CEO Christopher Ramsey and Christy Sicard, Senior Director for Membership and SafeSport Compliance, were named in a civil suit involving Bahram Hojreh. Leaders legally implicated alongside a prominent SoCal coach accused of sexually assaulting female players were certainly worthy of my scrutiny.

Amid demands by a small but vocal group of former national team players, one-time USAWP board members and age group coaches that Ramsey and the entire board—including Michael Graff, current chair—resign, I unpacked details of the Hojreh case. Animosities dating back to 2006, when Graff and Ramsey assumed leadership roles, bubbled up. Which brought me to a fundamental question: During a pandemic that attacks underlying weaknesses, was USA Water Polo—hobbled by a coronavirus-induced financial crisis and under siege due to a public bloodletting—robust enough to survive COVID-19?

My conclusion is yes. With Graff, Ramsey and Bill Smith, who will become board chair in June, leading the way, USAWP has an opportunity to quickly rebound as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, an ingrained disrespect bordering on pettiness persists among top polo people, which could blunt future prospects for the sport’s national governing body.

Plenty of bad faith to go around

At the 2021 USA Water Polo General Assembly last month, Mike Graff lamented that he could not understand why a group of prominent polo supporters would attack a sport that—by his accounting—has proven to be remarkably resilient.

“Why are they dissatisfied? Graff asked rhetorically in his final address as USAWP’s board chair. “I really don’t know,”

Chris.12U Greenwich.JOs circa 2005

Chris Ramsey (center) coaching Greenwich 12U athletes. Photo Courtesy: USAWP

In fact, he’s been fighting dissatisfaction since being tapped by Russ Hafferkamp 15 years ago to lead an organization the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) deemed in need of a make-over. Since then, Graff has gone from being entirely removed from the workings of USAWP to being at the very center of American polo.

Since arriving as a relative unknown in 2006, Graff has had a hand in all of the organization’s major decisions. He picked Ramsey as CEO, stocked the USAWP board with his preferred candidates and supported the organization with generous donations. He also engineered the ascension of Smith, his long-time board collaborator, to a top leadership position.

Along the way, he and Ramsey have been constantly criticized. As Ramsey described in an interview last month, many long-time polo supporters were disenfranchised by changes instituted by the new leaders.

People who had volunteered under very good will for a long time suddenly found themselves outside a process that to them felt like it was part of their family. So that was a hard thing to bridge for some people.

It’s hard because they feel so passionately about the sport. Also, it took a while to see the direction that we were going in, to understand it and see what people’s role in that direction was.

It created some real challenges, but I would also say under the old volunteer system, water polo was more tribal in those days. You had the Long Beach group, you had the Newport group, you had the Peninsula group, the Olympic Club group—you had various groups of people that were doing great things in their community for the sport. On a volunteer basis, a lot of decisions at the national office were based upon these different pockets of organization.

Our system has been: we want to grow everywhere. It’s a different approach, and maybe some gears have ground as we made that transition—and in some cases maybe everyone hasn’t gotten over this.

In evolving from a primarily volunteer entity to one professionally staffed—which, according to former Vice President Terence Ma, was the purpose of the USOC-directed reorganization—USAWP was changed for the better.

“We had dreams of being a great organization, but we didn’t have the mechanism or the support,” Ma said in a recent interview. “What it seems to me is that we now have that in place from what I’m seeing of USA Water Polo.”

When asked why animosity towards Ramsey is so personal, Ma identified the CEO’s compensation. He also pointed to the entrenched positions of certain polo “tribes” as familiar from his tenure (2001-06).

Bear in mind that 15 years ago, if my memory is correct, our CEO and executive director—who supposedly had the credentials because he had been an athletic director—Tom Seitz—made barely $100,000. When you talk about someone who’s making close to $500,000, that’s more money than people think [the position] is worth in a volunteer organization, particularly one where one side [women’s national team] is successful and the other side [men’s] is not.

Huntington Beach versus Newport Beach versus San Diego in California, particularly the [Olympic] Club versus Central Valley versus East Coast versus everyone hates Florida… there was a lot to that. And that was how the organization was run when Rich and I were in charge. Our job was to manage all that as volunteers.

Now that we have a professional organization that takes the power base away, I can see that as an issue, but for people to get to the point where it’s personal? I don’t know if that’s enough of an explanation.

This doesn’t absolve current USAWP leadership of stoking the poisonous rancor that at times has surrounded the “Old Guard” of American polo. There have been crucial mistakes– including the manner in which Hojreh was able to operate during the past decade. This has, understandably, created a negative impression of Ramsey’s leadership—not to mention the enormous toll it has extracted from Hojreh’s alleged victims.


USAWP board members Mike Graff (center, w/tie), Susan Bao (in black blouse) and Bill Smith (in back) surrounded by members of the USA women’s team. Photo Courtesy: USAWP via Twitter

Graff has regularly pointed to a $600,000 deficit he inherited. This is disputed by Ma— who said both he and Rich Foster, former USAWP president, were “furious” that Graff, in his General Assembly address accused his predecessors of self-dealing and conflicts of interest. Comments like these from the USAWP board chair strike a discordant note at a time when a call to unity might be best.

Examining the Hojreh saga, it’s what his former athletes are experiencing that should be of paramount concern to all in the USAWP family. This is not to say the ex-coach is guilty. That’s for the courts to decide. But there’s no question that young athletes were grievously harmed, a situation that should never happen again.

Hojreh, Ramsey + SafeSport

Ramsey has his detractors, some of whom suggests he’s covering for Hojreh—an almost implausible scenario. However, unlike the man he’s become tied to, Ramsey has never been formerly accused of anything inappropriate. Reports that he’s being investigated by SafeSport must be parsed by the fact that Morgan Stewart, lead attorney for Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, the law firm suing Ramsey, Sicard and USAWP, admitted it was he who called the Center about the USAWP CEO.

Ramsey and Sicard did not contact local authorities after complaints from parents, coaches and zone board members following the July 2017 incidents because—as has been documented—they had already been called. Responding to criticism about his follow-up actions, the Ramsey cites SafeSport’s authority once they were given jurisdiction.

If, and when, the Center expressly exercises jurisdiction over particular allegations regarding a particular Participant, the relevant organization(s) cannot issue—in response to those allegations—a suspension or other restriction that may deny or threaten to deny a Respondent’s opportunity to participate in sport. The relevant organization may implement any necessary safety plan(s) or interim measure(s).
2019 SafeSport Code for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Movement

Given the gravity of the situation, Ramsey might have referenced the response of Foster and former USAWP Executive Director Bruce Wigo. Responding to sexual abuse accusations in 2000 against Randy Dimacali, a prominent coach from San Diego, they suspended him despite pressure to do otherwise.

USAWP_old_logo“We said: ‘We don’t care. If they want to sue us for not following those rules, we don’t care. We’re going to be as supportive to the players as we can,” Foster explained in an interview last November. Dimacali ultimately served one year in jail and five years of probation for his crimes.

USAWP uses the Joint Training Bases for national team training—the same facility that hosted Hojreh’s International Water Polo Club teams. If someone had decided to monitor the now banned coach after the incidents in question, his alleged abuse might not have continued for another year.

Ramsey did not avail himself of his predecessors’ experience; in one of many fractures between the new regime and polo’s old guard, Foster left the USAWP board in 2007 and has become one of Ramsey’s and Graff’s fiercest foes.

In attacking his character, Ramsey’s critics dismiss his ability to fundraise. The onetime New York City non-profit executive brought an invaluable skill to an organization in desperate need of donations to survive. Which—according to the numbers—Ramsey has been very successful at. Taking aim at Graff, who in any other organization might be lauded as a savior, also appears shortsighted. How do they propose to replace Ramsey’s talents and Graff’s treasure?

There IS hope on the horizon

Short of a damning indictment from SafeSport, Ramsey endures. In Bill Smith. he has a familiar partner who will continue the program established by Graff, including the $250 million dollar complex in Irvine that will include a new national training center for the U.S. men’s and women’s teams—at a cost of $50 million to USAWP.


Jessica Steffens, Brenda Villa, Marlen Esparza, Leonel Manzano. Photo Courtesy: Richard Sandoval

There’s the prospect of new leadership on the horizon. At the aforementioned General Assembly, only two board members other than Graff and Smith spoke.

Jessica Steffens and Brenda Villa—both gold-medal winning Olympians—have prominent roles in the organization and, given the opportunity, their influence will only grow. Smith, now in his 60’s, has been on the USAWP board for 12 of the previous 14 years; expecting more than a quad of service seems unrealistic.

With their Olympic pedigrees, Stanford degrees and the respect their accomplishments demand, one can only hope that Steffens, Villas—and others from the USAWP community—will heal the wounds that have plagued the organization for decades. If so, the sport’s long-term well-being will be assured, something that all polo supporters can agree on.

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