Is an Austere Residency Program Better than No Residency Program? Part 3: The Moral Obligation to not Short Change Athletes and the Problems Inherent with Self Funding

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In many ways the athletes at the Residency Program at Auburn are like unpaid interns. Hungry, goal oriented, hard working and willing to make big sacrifices to get ahead. Like some interns they maybe willing to work for free, even willing to pay to work, but that still doesn’t make it OK to not compensate them..

Part 2 of this series focused on the mixed messages being sent to USA Residency Program athletes. This part focuses on the moral obligations to athletes inherent with Residency Programs and the dilemma it creates in terms of other spending possibilities.

The Moral Obligation

So, let’s first review a couple positions I feel pretty strongly about:

1) At this point in time Residency Programs for U.S. National Teams make little sense. This is because:

- The U.S. is unlikely to qualify for an Olympics anytime soon
– We don’t have the necessary funding to properly fund its operation
– We should first carefully select a location based on multiple criteria
– And, underlying all of this is the reality that given the sport’s current status in the U.S. there are several other spending options that make more sense at this point in time

2) USA Team Handball should always fully fund athlete participation in qualification events for Olympic and World Championship qualification.

And, let me further qualify position 2) by stating that my position in regard to this funding is even stronger when those athletes are participating in a Residency Program. USA Team Handball should fund trips like that before just about any spending line. And, it doesn’t stop there. Athletes at Residency Programs should get room, board and a stipend. Find the money somewhere. Heck, cancel the Club National Championships if you have to. Just do it.

Huh? Wait and second, you might ask. How can you, John Ryan, bad mouth Residency Programs, leftwards, backwards and forwards and then turn around and argue that they should be the #1 funding priority, everything else be damned?

Well, the answer to this seeming contradiction comes from my own personal experience as a “sort of” national team residency member whose only compensation were cafeteria meal tickets that he had to fight to get. I say “sort of” because I never was invited to be on the national team and I didn’t live in the dorms. I just showed up and started practicing. Don’t get me wrong I was happy to be there and as a Captain in the Air Force I was better off financially than the rest of my teammates were with their meager compensation.

But, this personal experience and the experience of friends and teammates shapes my opinion. I thought our setup at the Olympic Training Center in 1990s was austere, but I see the deal that the athletes are getting at Auburn and think to myself,

“Holy Crap, at least I got 1 meal/day in the USOC cafeteria. These guys are getting Jack S&*#!”

In my opinion, it pretty much comes down to this: If an athlete is part of a Federation sponsored residency program the amount of time and sacrifice involved for all practical purposes makes that athlete an employee of USA Team Handball. And once you cross that threshold it creates a compelling moral obligation to compensate those athletes appropriately. Now a debate can be had as to what is appropriate compensation, but I would argue that it should at least be minimum wage. That would equate roughly to room, board and a small monthly stipend.

As I’ve already elaborated none of that’s being provided and worse, we’re asking athletes to pay for trips. It’s a huge disconnect. If USA Team Handball were a business the Residency Program athletes are either the equivalents of unpaid interns or slave labor. Perhaps, an exaggeration of the situation, but it paints a picture. And, this picture creates a moral dilemma. USA Team Handball might prefer to spend money on grass roots or youth programs, but when they do so they’ve also got to factor in that athlete making incredible sacrifices at Auburn. Should that dollar go to development or towards that athlete eating Mac & Cheese and soliciting friends for funds to go to Cuba?

Work Arounds and Rationalizations to the Moral Dilemma

Nobody faced with a moral dilemma likes to make choices because such choices are hard. Inevitably, such dilemmas lead to some rationalizations and work arounds to make the tough decisions a little easier to make. Here are some examples that appear to be at play:

Directed Donations through Social Media: USA Team Handball is raising funds for the upcoming Pan American Championships through a campaign at gofundme.com. On the surface this might seem like a great way for everyone that wants to help the USA Women’s team to do so directly. The reality, however, is that money is extremely fungible and it’s pretty easy to move funding from one budget line to another. For all practical purposes contributing to the Cuba trip simply raises USA Team Handball overall budget.   Money that USA Team Handball would have been spent for this trip (or should have been set aside for this trip) gets freed up to be spent elsewhere. It might make folks feel better, but the reality is that their contributions are also funding budget items that they don’t care about or worse, would never ever consider contributing to.

The Athletes Keep Telling us they’re Willing to Make Huge Sacrifices: USA Team Handball management can alleviate some of the moral dilemma by being brutally honest to all its athletes in residence about the budget situation. In fact, I would be surprised is this hasn’t already been the case.   No promises made and athletes can decide whether they want to live and train under those circumstances. A real tough recruiting pitch, but the morally correct thing to do. Still, it involves some level of rationalization as nobody likes to give recruits a “take it or leave it” choice. And, many of those that take the choice are so devoted that they will bear huge sacrifices to do so.   Yes, it’s free will, but it’s also taking advantage of people to a certain extent.

Short Changing the Athletes: In a fiscally constrained environment every line item suffers, but what happens if a little more funding comes available? Does USA Team Handball fund some development project or does it provide a stipend or meals for its residency athletes? Well, the temptation may very well be to keep the funding level the same for the athletes. After all, they’ve been happy with what they have, so there’s no compelling need to make them happier. Besides they signed up knowing what the financial circumstances are and it would help our sport to do that development effort. I, for one, can speak from personal experience that unless athletes speak out they may very well get shortchanged.

Self Funding: If funding is short, it’s also possible to ask the athletes to fund a portion, if not all of the trip. After all, they are the ones that will derive the most benefit from attending a prestigious tournament. Again, we have another example of how money is fungible. Yes, that funding coming out of the athlete’s pocket frees up funding that the Federation can spend elsewhere.

The Perils of Self Funding

The problems of self funding, however, go much deeper than merely squeezing the athletes out of what little money they have. It also can cause real problems with recruiting and create some awkward situations.

Really Limits Recruiting: Not every athlete will want or will be able to afford paying for room, board and trips to competition. As highlighted previously it will pretty much limit participation to the very dedicated. While dedication is always desired in an athlete it doesn’t necessarily correlate to the type of athletic skills needed to compete on the world stage.

Have’s and Have Not’s: Virtually every team (pro or amateur) has a bit of financial diversity amongst its teammates. Lebron James makes more than the 12th man on the bench. AAU teams have kids from poor neighborhoods and kids with a 3 car garage. Where it’s got to be pretty awkward though is the situation when making the team for the big tournament is a function of being willing and able to pay your way. At least it would have been pretty strange 22 years ago if I was willing to pay my way to the World Championships, but Darrick Heath was short of funds. This is a really bad situation that should be considered only as an absolute last resort.

How can this Problem be Solved?

So, how do you solve the Austere Residency Program problem. Well, there’s really only 2 ways:

  • Turn the austere Residency Program into a full-fledged Residency Program. Of course, this can only be done with more funding; a lot more funding. Room, board and stipends would be just a start. Funding would also be needed for regular trips for competition, scholarships, and recruiting. And, if you add up all the costs to do a Residency Program properly for 30 athletes it’s a pretty sizable chunk of change.
  • Close the Residency Program down until such time that sufficient funding becomes available.

Alternatives

I guess there are some alternatives.

Here’s a bad one: Ignore the problem and continue to run a Residency Program on the cheap. But, don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s better than nothing. It’s not. Not only is it extremely unlikely that it will achieve the desired effect of Olympic Qualification it will continue to siphon funding and man hours that would be better spent on development. Development that would lead to a larger player base that might make a future Residency Program viable in terms of available recruits.

And, here’s a better one worthy of further consideration. Dramatically restructure the Residency Program to focus only on developing players, 23 and younger.   But, honestly I’m not sure we even have the funding to do this right. Perhaps, may be the Federation should even consider abandoning one gender as a cost savings. I’ve yet to write a commentary on this option, but due to Title 9 and generally weaker competition worldwide this means keeping the Women’s program at the expense of the Men.

Final Thoughts

As I written this latest commentary I can’t help but reflect on my own Residency Program experience and wonder if I’m being like the strict parent telling his kids in college to study and never party hearty. You know, the strict parent that was total wild child when they were younger. After all, despite its limitations my Residency Program was a good one. Who am I to want to deny up and coming athletes the same experience?

But, as I’ve written ad nauseam, on numerous occasions so much has changed in the past 22 years. PATHF competition is stronger, European leagues are way more professionalized and post college athletes have much better opportunities today.  Honestly, I’ve got my doubts as to whether a full-fledged, well funded Residency Program unlike any we’ve ever seen could get the job done today.

To think that an austere program could somehow do the job? It just has me scratching my head in bewilderment that smart people can reflect on what’s occurred in the past, assess the current state of affairs and come up with such a different conclusion.

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