USA Team Handball: Smart international moves offset by questionable National team planning

If you check the USA Team Handball website regularly like I do, you surely noticed General Manager Steve Pastorino’s recent blog post highlighting his recent trip to Germany and Denmark. Some shortsighted naysayers have knocked these trips to Europe as a waste of time and money, but I see those trips as just the type of frequent face to face interaction that’s needed to coax the Euros into realizing that 1) the U.S. is a massive untapped market for handball and 2) that market won’t wake up unless they (the Euros) take action to make it happen. The moves to build relationships with European organizations should pay dividends in the future and in particular, I was very pleased to see them meet with the TV production and marketing company, Sportfive. It’s one thing for a guy like me to pull them aside at the World Championships and tell them that they are missing the boat, and it’s another thing entirely for USATH to show up in force at their offices to talk shop.

But, while these international efforts are exactly the kind of moves I’ve wanted to see for years, I can’t say the same thing in regards to the moves the U.S. appears to making in regards to national team competition. I say “appears” because the U.S. Federation has not chosen yet to share any of its plans for national team competition. Even worse, in a clear lack of transparency, it masks that this topic is even being discussed by its Board of Directors. Why do I say this? Well, first off, you might be surprised to learn that the Board Meeting minutes from last March have been posted on the U.S. Website for a couple of weeks now. One might think that such a meeting merits a short blurb on the front page with a link to the minutes, but apparently the discussion that took place wasn’t considered interesting enough to the membership. I guess one could argue that really bad transparency would be not posting the minutes at all, but this can’t be done as it would violate the Federation’s by-laws. So much like USA Team Handball’s IRS Form 990, you’re going to have to periodically drill down a couple layers on their website to get some marginally more meaningful information.

Alright, why the sarcastic, “marginally more meaningful?” Well, read the meeting minutes as it relates to National Team development and judge for yourself. This passage, in particular, is very telling:

“A lengthy discussion about USOC High Performance funding ensued. Programs and funding for Domestic Development, Futures Program and European Resident Athlete Program are in place. A discussion about National Team Development resulted in a commitment by Wartalowicz and Pastorino to present at this year’s Nationals a “Plan 2016” that will outline the men’s and women’s roadmaps to success.

OK, how about a little more detail concerning this “lengthy discussion”? What exactly was discussed? Why did it result in a commitment to present an outline roadmap to success? Why isn’t there a plan already and why is it called Plan 2016? Underlying these rhetorical questions are some unsubstantiated rumors that I have received indicating that USA Team Handball is not even going to try and qualify for the 2011 Pan American Games. The information I received is second or third hand, but an email query from USA Team Handball General Manager Steve Pastorino acknowledged that they “have to address the upcoming PANAM issue” and plan to do so next month in Vegas.

I don’t even know where to begin here. The Pan American Games is the primary route for the U.S. to qualify for the Olympic Games. How can a National Governing Body (NGB) underneath the U.S. Olympic Committee umbrella even contemplate not trying to qualify for the Olympics? Well, if you read the USOC Bylaws it’s pretty clear to me that an NGB simply can’t do that. Read Section 9, Athletes Rights, 9.1 Opportunity to Participate, which reads in part:

“No member of the corporation may deny or threaten to deny any amateur athlete the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games, the Pan American Games, the Paralympic Games, a World Championship competition….”

I’m not a lawyer, but I’m thinking deciding to not even field a team for qualification matches for the Pan American Games pretty much denies athletes the opportunity participate in those games. And come to think of it, the decision to not send a Men’s team to the Division 1 tournament last year in the Dominican Republic would seem to violate the USOC By-laws as well, since it was a qualification event for the World Championships.

But setting aside the legal ramifications, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that skipping out on a chance to compete in the Pan American Games can ever be construed as a good idea. Last October, I wrote a commentary on what a big mistake I thought it was for the U.S. to not send a Men’s team to the Pan American Team Handball Federation’s Division 1 Championship. Lacking a clear explanation behind the decision I provided some speculative reasons as to why this decision was reached. Those reasons were:

1) The USA Federation didn’t want to jeopardize the establishment of a North American Handball Federation (NAHF)
2) Not enough money to afford the trip
3) A European Friendly trip is seen as more productive
4) Participating would disrupt the youth movement
5) Team USA wants to avoid embarrassment

Six months later the picture is somewhat clearer. Reason #1 appears to have lost validity as the Board Minutes indicate that the motion for the new federation at the IHF Congress will “be withdrawn until a more favorable climate for a split is available.” (Memo to USATH Board: If a new federation means somebody else in the world is going to lose a slot for the WC or Olympics I don’t see any change in climate coming.) Aspects of reasons 2-5 would still seem to apply, but the words “Plan 2016” appear to signal that Reason #4 (the youth movement) is the focus for this decision.

Then as now, I don’t see a youth movement as justification for not participating. National Teams, with a heavy influx of young prospects could participate in Pan American Games qualification events later this year and next spring. Anyone who follows handball in this hemisphere knows that the U.S. has virtually no chance of putting together a men’s or women’s team capable of winning a Gold Medal next year in Guadalajara. But, it’s certainly feasible that we could put together teams that could qualify for 1 of the 8 spots at the Pan American Games. Those players would gain valuable experience in very meaningful and relevant competition and when we try to execute “Plan 2016” at the Pan American Games in 2015 wouldn’t it be better to have several athletes that have been there before?

But what do I know? Maybe Plan 2016 will try to incorporate an “out of nowhere” strategy similar to the North Korean soccer team that shocked Italy at the 1966 World Cup. All, I can say is that I look forward to the presentation of the plan next month in Las Vegas. As I’ve been saying for months it’s high time that we had one.

Steve Pastorino on Handball (16 Apr 10): USATH Welcomed in Hamburg and Denmark:
USATH March 17 BoD Meeting Minutes:
USOC Bylaws:
THN (22 Oct 09): USA declines to send team to Men’s Div 1 PATHF Championships:
THN (25 Oct 09):Analyzing the US decision to not participate in PATHF: