With a decision still forthcoming from the USA Hockey’s Board of Directors on the future of women’s hockey, on Monday, 16 United States Senators from 14 different states wrote a letter to Dave Ogrean, Executive Director of USA Hockey. These 16 Senators, taking a stand on behalf of the US Women’s National Hockey Team in support of their boycott of the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship, cited violations by USA Hockey of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, otherwise known as the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act (hereinafter, I will refer to the law simply as the Ted Stevens Act, named after the Alaskan Senator who introduced the bill 39 years ago).
The purpose of the Ted Stevens Act, in general, is to allow the charter of a National Governing Body to organize and support athletes in their quest for Gold at the Olympic Games, both summer and winter, as well as other international competitions. As it relates here, the Ted Stevens Act gives USA Hockey the power to act as the governing body related to all things hockey in terms of international competition and the requisite domestic training necessary to compete.
In a previous article, I debunked various myths surrounding the dispute, including some legal issues related to fairness, equality, and support. In that article, I debunked the myth that the women’s hockey team is entitled to be paid by USA Hockey – which they are not. However, while we await an overdue decision, allow me to clarify some of these legal issues laid out by members of the U.S. Senate.
It is still a myth, at least for the time being, that the women are legally entitled to be paid more for their training outside the six-month period leading up to the Olympic Games. Without a judgment from a court of competent jurisdiction, it is still unclear whether or not the women are legally entitled to compensation for the training they do all-year round for four years leading up to Olympic Games, not just the six-month prior to the Games. Thus, despite one’s personal beliefs on whether the women deserve to be paid more money over a longer period of time or not, this is the current state of legal affairs as it relates to the USWNHT.
The Ted Stevens Act does, however, address support for programs, specifically with regards to gender. Paragraph (6) of Section 220524 of Title 36 of the U.S. Code provides that USA Hockey, a National Governing Body according to the statute, shall “provide equitable support and encouragement for participation by women where separate programs for male and female athletes are conducted on a national basis.” The key with this part of the law is the type of support that the women and men alike receive from USA Hockey. Though there are disputed figures coming from various sources, the bottom line is that only the women receive funds from USA Hockey for the six-month prior to the Olympic Games; obviously, the men do not require support as the competitors for international tournaments rake in at least hundreds of thousands of dollars per year as per their NHL salaries, ranging up to millions for top paid veteran players. But read literally, if the women seek to be treated equally, they would receive exactly what they receive now, because that is what the men are entitled to, as well.
But another issue the women are boycotting for is the issue of alleged inequitable support for programs between the boys’ and girls’ youth programs. Paragraph (6) does seem to, on its face, refer to programs that are meant for the development of athletes’ skills through programs, such as the National Team Development Program that seeks to refine and improve skills of teenage boys. USA Hockey purportedly spends $3.5 million a year for teenage boys’ programs, which includes a 60-game season, training camps, etc. Adult women, which includes Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight, and Meghan Duggan, do not receive anywhere close to that type of funding. But while the law seems to infer that boys’ and girls’ programs should be treated equally, the question remains whether a judge will interpret “women” as meaning “girls” as well – nowhere in this section of the statute is the word “girls” found. Furthermore, the word “equally” could be interpreted as a number of things: the same amount in stipends versus equitable share of stipends based on revenue generated (neither of which would put the USWNHT in a better position); the same amount in terms of program funding between girls’ and boys’ funding versus the equitable share of funding based on current enrollment figures (still, there is a disproportionate enrollment figure which could be detrimental to the cause if “equality” is interpreted in this manner). Thus, if this dispute ever made it to court, the interpretation of the law could go either way. My hope is that a judge would rule favorably to the gripes of the Women’s National Hockey Team by way of the term “female” included in the paragraph, but this is not even close to a guarantee.
Let’s stop for a second, though – do the parties really want to litigate this issue? Litigation is a very timely and costly process. In the legal field in general, most cases settle well before trial so as not to burden clients with the costs of litigation. Of course, I’m sure the USWNHT would do whatever it takes to achieve their goals of fairness, equality, and support for their program and for the future for young girls as well. But litigation will cost USA Hockey money as well in the form of attorneys’ fees and other costly expenditures – money that could be used instead to better fund programs for youth girls’ hockey.
So whatever the law is or what a judge would rule, litigation is an unwise route for both parties here. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to see that the women have the moral support from all walks of life, from the young girls who seek to benefit from the cause to the various Players’ Associations of North American sports, and all the way up to members of the United States Congress.
Forget the legal issues. This is about a bigger picture here. The game of hockey begs for growing. USA Hockey has said that it was committed to this cause. A deal to be reached is what is best for business, as I have laid out in previous articles.
The stage has been set; an agreement has been proposed; a meeting was held or is still being held; and the general public both from within the hockey community and outside have weighed in with their opinions and support. As Women’s History Month winds down, all we can do now is wait, wait for a determination on the future of women’s hockey, and in turn women’s sport.
As per USA Today, a tentative four-year deal has been voted on, but has yet to be finalized. Stay tuned…