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Don Garber and Sunil Gulati campaigning for Kathy Carter illustrates SUM/USSF conflict of interest

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Report of campaigning comes after denials from the USSF officials

Beyond Sport Series - November 2015 Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Beyond Sports Series

Current U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati and MLS Commissioner Don Garber, who is also a member of the U.S. Soccer Federation Board of Directors and the CEO of Soccer United Marketing, have taken an active role in SUM President Kathy Carter’s run for USSF President according to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl. This is after the duo denied trying to influence Kathy Carter to run for USSF President and said they weren’t taking an active role in securing her support for the position.

The entire article is worth reading, even with the auto-play videos and onslaught of advertising that pops up, but basically the outline of the story is that at a dinner attended by Kathy Carter, Gulati, and Garber on Tuesday December 19th, the Eastern New York State Soccer Association committed to vote for her as U.S. Soccer Federation President while Garber and Gulati were there to get support for her from the association.

As association president Sal Rapaglia said in an interview with Wahl, “Let’s put two and two together. So they support her, naturally, which is good. She’s got a big help. If she’s in trouble, Sunil could help her, you know.…[Gulati and Garber] help her, and we’ve got everything going. We [the state associations] just vote.” Wahl also noted that other sources at the dinner say that Garber and Gulati were actively trying to get support for Carter at the event and in the past Wahl had reported that the two were influencing her to run in the first place.

Wahl further reported that Garber denied he was there to campaign for Carter, but the MLS commissioner added, “I think she’s really qualified to lead the federation. And I will support that effort. But again, she needs to do the work to convince the majority of the membership that she’s the right person for the job. And I have been consistent there. I don’t think it’s fair for anybody to think that Don Garber is not going to support Kathy Carter as president of U.S. Soccer.” Somehow, Garber, who referred to himself in the third person, believes he can say “I will support that effort” but not think that he’s campaigning for her when he says that.

For his part, Gulati said, “Kathy has asked me a couple times to introduce her to the New York association folks. When I got invited to the dinner, I told them we might have a surprise guest. Kathy came to part of the dinner, and actually Don stopped by as well. I’d mentioned to him if he wanted to come by for a drink [he should], and he’s done that in the past at some of these dinners as well.”

Ghosts of fat cats past

The entire episode has a certain Chuck Blazer-type feel to it. Denials, deception, and backroom deals hark back to the days of corruption and embezzlement that were supposed to be a part of past. There’s even a peppering of sexist comments from ENYSSA President Rapaglia about Carter that add a layer of creepiness to the story. While the embezzlement and apartments for cats may not be a feature of powerful figures in soccer in the U.S. these days, transparency and what is in the best interest of the game have not replaced them.

It also brings up some questions that Gulati, Carter, and Garber should answer:

  • If there’s nothing to hide, and trying to get support for her isn’t illegal as Wahl points out, why lie about trying to get support for Carter’s bid to become federation president?
  • Should Gulati and Garber still be on the governing council and oversee the election if they are campaigning for a candidate who they have business and personal interests in getting elected?
  • Does Carter think that is is good governance for them to be on the governing council still?
  • The candidate has said in her Vision for USSF: “I will work with the elected and independent Board members to govern the sport collectively and transparently,” does Carter plan on asking Garber to step down from the Board of Directors of USSF after obfuscating that he is campaigning for her to be elected President of the federation and working against the principles of transparency that she says she is running on?
  • Is Carter in a position to criticize the CEO of the company she is the President of as she runs to be a USSF official?

The story further illustrates that the links between MLS, USSF, and SUM are indeed too close and are at best a conflict of interest. Garber, as CEO of SUM, personally has a lot to gain from ensuring that the links between the three organizations stay strong and grow. For example, the SUM agreement with USSF is set to expire in 2022 and having the former president of the company running the federation, or up for re-election by then, after he helped get her elected would be a big chip to cash in when it comes time to renew the agreement.

And yet, Carter doesn’t think it is fair to call her moving from a corporation that gains massive profits off of the federation to running it a conflict of interest. Indeed she might be right, it may very well go beyond a conflict of interest and be a case of obvious corruption.

In response to the article Carter issued a statement to Wahl, saying:

Since announcing my candidacy, I’ve spent every single day meeting with and calling members of the federation from around the country. I’ve asked a number of people to make introductions for me and I appreciate the opportunity to make my case. My job in every meeting and conversation I’ve had is to share my vision for the game, earn respect and trust, and ask for support—that’s on me. Every member then makes their decision based on my experience, qualifications, and passion for making soccer the leading sport in this country.

In no way, shape, or form does Carter’s generic statement address that Gulati and Garber have been lying about actively supporting her. It also doesn’t explain how she can be committed to transparency while also accepting the backroom work of Garber and Gulati to secure support for her in the election.

This is all futile

The fact that the two most powerful people in the sport in the country have been lying about campaigning on Carter’s behalf, an act she hasn’t condemned them for, and in the past denied that they were doing, damages her credibility and should lead voters to question her ability to impartially lead the federation while she talks to them about earning respect and trust. Despite that, it might not matter and could even help her cause.

Not to sound too much like a nihilist, but it’s clear that this is a completely futile exercise. The voters who would have been inclined to vote for Carter because she seemed like a continuity candidate who wouldn’t threaten their interests will still do so. In fact, knowing that Garber and Gulati stand behind her in this case may make them and others more likely to support her.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter a lot what fans say and think about all of this because there are two votes that the fan council gets out of 1,300 that will be cast. Hanging banners in stadiums and making noise online may have helped lead to Sunil Gulati to decide not to run in the election, but that may end up being the only victory fans can claim in deciding how the election goes. Other voters have their own set of interests and voting procedures that align with what they want to get out of the election.

For example, MLS will control 64% of the votes cast in the Pro Council - which translates to nearly 17% of the overall votes that will almost certainly be going to Kathy Carter. The ENYSSA is a member of the adult council, which among other things organizes the U.S. Open Cup. It isn’t clear what the value of their vote is, but it is conceivable that the association that covers an area that includes the largest city in the United States could be significant.

When Sunil Gulati told Sam Borden of ESPN, “the general perception in the soccer community versus the people who vote in elections may be different right now," this is what he meant. While that may have been self-preservation, it could also be put another way by saying, it doesn’t matter what the public thinks about this election since they don’t vote in it. There are about six weeks from now until the voting for the next federation president kicks off at U.S. Soccer's National Council Meeting on February 10th. A lot can happen between now and then, but this case illustrates how difficult it will be for a candidate advocating for change to be elected.