Is an Austere Residency Program Better than No Residency Program? Part 2: Sending Mixed Messages to Athletes and some Rumblings of Discontent

Mixed Messages

Sending U.S. athletes a mixed message: We want you to join our National Team Residency Program and help us in our quest to go to the Olympics. We won’t pay you, lodge you, feed you or even pay your way to tournaments, though. Also, could you bring your checkbook and your social media skills to solicit donations from family and friends? 

In Part 1 of this commentary I questioned why a crowd sourcing effort for $25K was necessary to send the USA Women to the Pan American Championships. In this part I’ll look at the message it sends to athletes and whether an austere residency program makes sense in the big scheme of things.

Continuing on here’s the next question that needs to be asked regarding the lack of funding for the USA Women’s upcoming trip to the Pan American Championships.

What kind of message does it send to current residency program athletes?

The diplomatic answer is that it sends a “mixed message” to those athletes currently residing at Auburn. Obviously, the bad part is essentially telling those athletes “we don’t believe you’re worthy” in the big scheme of things. Words are nice, but money talks. The good part of the message, is telling athletes we’re doing all we can and we’re not abandoning you.   To further elaborate the message is along the lines of, “We’re doing everything we possibly can to give you the best chance to be competitive. This residency program might not be as much as we’d like it to be, but it’s all we got. Hang with us. It will get better.”

The non-diplomatic answer is, of course, is that the message is just simply bad and cannot be sugar coated in any shape or form. With the sacrifices these players are making financially, professionally and physically the least that should be expected is that their trips to official competition are fully paid for. To ask them to open their own wallets and/or solicit friends and family to send them to represent their country will never feel right.

What kind of message does it send to prospective recruits to the residency program?

While it’s possible to rationale a mixed message with the previous question it’s not possible to do so with the message being sent to prospective recruits. The reaction from most, if not all, prospective recruits will be somewhere along the lines of:

“Let me get this straight. You want me to move to Alabama, away from my friends, my family, my job prospects to chase an Olympic dream? And, you want me to pay and raise money for the right to do so? Umm, I’ll think pass on that. I’ve got better things to do.”

For sure, that’s going to be the answer USA Team Handball will get from the blue chip athletes who recently had their entire college education paid for. Not even Division 3 athletes pay for their travel to competition. Honestly, it’s a testament to this great sport and the power of the Olympic dream that any athletes are willing to make such sacrifices.

Rumblings of Discontent: A Board and Staff Split?

Along with these bad or mixed messages being sent there appears to be some signs of discontent emerging on the Board of Directors. This wouldn’t be the first time. Back in 2010 I interviewed Board Member Dave Thompson on the topic of National Team support. He vociferously voiced his dissatisfaction with the Board’s decision to not fund national team trips back then. I suspect his opinion on the matter hasn’t changed much. The same is also likely true with Board Member Tomuke Ebuwei. Heck, she was even named to the roster for the upcoming championships. At 38 years of age she’s showing she can still play beating out several younger athletes practicing full time at Auburn for a roster spot. Of course, as Athlete Advisory Council members it’s pretty much a given that they are going to come down on the side of the athletes in most cases. Another Board Member also voiced some mild frustration on social media regarding the situation and not having control.”

Discontent is not just limited to the Board either as veiled rumblings of the need to continue to support the Women’s National Team were contained in match reports from the North American & Caribbean Tournament written by High Performance Director, Dave Gascon.   Here’s a sample:

“I am really happy for these players,” Coach Latulippe commented (after) he orchestrated the victory which (gave the team) a chance to compete for third. “They have committed themselves to our Auburn University-based Residency Program and they have earned the right to represent the United States in the Pan Am Championships. We have a great blend of veterans and new players who are learning the game at an accelerated pace due to the Residency Program. This team is getting better week to week, and over the past year the transformation into a competitive team is remarkable.”

Not an explicit plea, but a firm reminder of what these athletes have sacrificed and “earned.”

Behind the scenes they’ve apparently had to deliver bad news that no coach or manager ever should ever have to give.  This Tumblr blog post by former Residency Program athlete Caroline Voelker highlights a team meeting where Gascon informed the team he was able to convince the “Federation” to let the team go to Puerto Rico if they could come up with the funds to self finance by chipping in $500/each.

Based on this information, I suspect Coach Latulippe and High Performance Director, Dave Gascon, were making a case to the USA Board of Directors to “find the money” to send the team to Cuba later this month. This should come as no surprise as they have put a lot of time and energy to making the program work. (I suspect that Dave Gascon has probably generously opened up his checkbook on multiple occasions.) Finally, no coach or High Performance Director would ever advocate not sending a team to an event which could lead to participating in the World Championships.

Austere vs. Nothing

In fact, if I were the Coach or High Performance Director I would have had some pointed words several months ago with USA Team Handball Management along the lines of:

“How can you expect us to be competitive with such a shoe string operation? Dam it! We are tired of asking athletes to make financial sacrifices. This isn’t tenable. Seriously, why did you bother to hire us if you weren’t ever going to give us the resources necessary to have a fighting chance to be successful?”

Of course, I’m being disingenuous here. Sure on the surface what I wrote makes perfect sense, but if you know the back story you also know that Coach Latulippe and High Performance Director Gascon have mostly themselves to blame for their financial predicament. They came up with the plan and made the decision that an austere residency program was better than nothing. Or, if you’ve got my perspective they decided an austere Residency Program was better than resources spent on grass roots development, Aarhus Academy, College Development, etc., etc., etc.

Personally, I doubt that they fully weighed the potential repercussions of an austere program. And, they’re probably not alone. When you really want to help someone like motivated, hard working dedicated athletes the natural reaction is to do whatever you can, future repercussions be damned. After all, the alternative is pretty unpleasant. No one wants to look such athletes in the eye and tell them that it’s just not practical at this point in time to invest limited resources to give them a better chance. That the odds of success are too long and that there are just too many other needs going wanting.

But, some might argue that while there are problems with an austere residency program it still has value and could be the building block upon which a full fledged residency program can be built. This indeed could be true, but in Part 3 I’ll further elaborate on the moral complications inherent with a residency program that should give USA Team Handball additional pause before continuing such an operation in its current shape and form.