LAND OF OPPORTUNITY
USPA Rule change mandates U.S. citizens be included on polo teams.

At the USPA Annual Meeting in The Plains, Virginia in 2008, the USPA Board of Governors approved several changes to the USPA Rules and Rules Interpretation, changes that are not without some controversy and concern, applauded as long overdue by others. Beginning January 2010, all teams entering United States Polo Association (USPA) events will be required by USPA Rule to check the citizenship status of team members to determine if the team is meeting the requirements as specified in USPA Rule 1. TEAMS that states:

I think it is a very good rule for the young Americans to get a chance to be in a high-goal organization. The rule is modeled around the English rule, more or less. I think the English are very progressive in terms of home-boy player development. Someone from the USPA should talk to their committee to see what works and what doesn’t. —Owen Rinehart, 7 goals  

1. TEAMS

f. Effective January 1, 2010 each Team in a USPA event with an upper handicap limit of 22 goals or less shall, excluding the sponsor, have a minimum of one Registered Player Member as defined in the Association By-laws.

1. TEAMS f. INTERPRETATION: The definition of “sponsor” refers to the individual responsible for the team. The designation of the team “sponsor” is left to the Club Tournament Committee and all such designations should be made before the start of the event. In the event of a dispute of the committee’s decision, any aggrieved team or player has recourse to the Protest procedure in the Association’s By-law 12.

  I’m very excited to see how the new rule will work out. I’ve been playing professionally now for two years and with the current economy the job market is much tighter in polo. I understand a similar rule was very successful in England. Young American pros should really benefit from this kind of regulation. —Trevor Allen, 2 goals

A team sponsored by a Registered Player Member (i.e. U. S. citizen) must have at least one additional Registered Player Member.

A team sponsored by an Affiliate Member must have at least one Registered Player Member.

It is the Team’s burden to convince the Club Committee and, in the event of a protest, the USPA Hearing Committee, that the individual designated as a “sponsor” is responsible for the team and meets the commonly accepted definition of “sponsor.”

In terms of the American rule, I have some mixed feelings about it. I do believe that it is important to help American players; however, I am not convinced that
this rule is the mechanism to do so. I am not sure that it truly accomplishes what it is set out to do. In addition, I believe that is contra to a fundamental element in polo, the handicap system. This very basic element in polo is how I, as a 0-goal female player, have the opportunity and privilege to play with and against a 10-goal male player. This is what sets polo apart from other sports. And, if I am “sponsoring” a polo team, I should be able to select my team members. Maybe the best combination of players does not include an American or maybe the whole team is American; however, the choice should be the team captain’s not a governing body’s. I think a variation of the rule could be that teams without American players could be charged a “fee” or a “charitable contribution” towards the “American National Team” or the “Team USA” agenda. This would provide an incentive to hire American but not take away other options. It would also provide a resource for American players.

Last summer when Sam Morton interviewed me and other players for the International Polo Club magazine he asked, “What would you do if you were chairman of the USPA?” I, as well as the majority of those interviewed, answered help American players and especially young American players. So clearly, this is on the minds of many USPA members, whether they are a professional or a team sponsor. Thus, we have a common goal or a mission for the USPA; although, the implementation of this mission is a different story.

After realizing that something needs to be done to give young Americans the opportunities to advance and develop, I began to ask people their ideas and how things were in the past. I found a common thread from all those who responded; intra-circuit tournaments. Somewhere, somehow over the years we have lost something—the cross fertilization of clubs playing against each other across the country or regionally. For example, in England, there are many more teams competing in low and medium goal, and therefore there are more opportunities to develop players.

In addition, in England, Pony Club is a wonderful resource to recruit and attract new players. I am committed to finding ways to help American players and I believe that we can learn a lot from what we did in the past. I think intra-circuit tournaments should be encouraged. Organizations should look to have up-and-coming Americans included in them. And, I feel strongly that the international venue is a crucial aspect to the advancement of the American polo player. —Melissa Ganzi, A rated

 

In the event of multiple sponsors, one shall be designated as the “primary sponsor” and there shall be at least one Registered Player Member in addition to this individual.

Should a team be supported by a nonplaying “sponsor” one player shall be designated as the “sponsor” and there must be at least one additional Registered Player Member.

This rule change has acquired the moniker “The American Rule” indicating that it is an attempt to provide playing opportunities for “American” players—or more exactly, to provide playing opportunities on teams in USPA events for those players defined as U.S. citizens. According to USPA By-Laws, Registered Player Members are members who are U.S. citizens and Affiliates Player Members can be from any country, other than the United States. Proofs of U.S. citizenship have been defined as a: USA Passport, Certificate of Citizenship or USA Birth Certificate.

After several years of review and some debate, the USPA Board of Governors decided there was a precipitous decline in the number of higher-goal players that claimed the United States as their home. More and more of the higher-goal players competing in the United States were foreign born and raised, and most of those imported players were from Argentina—a country where polo players are born, raised and developed through a multitude of opportunities to play from a young age through adulthood. These opportunities to practice and compete at all levels of polo have given the Argentine player a virtual monopoly on high-goal polo participation, particularly by high-goal Argentine professional players.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, opportunities for young players to develop into high-goal players has diminished for a several reasons. One, there are fewer places where young players can learn to ride, play and then compete from low- to high-goal polo. Second, keeping a string of polo ponies and all the related logistical overhead in the United States is getting to the point where only a few, fortunate people can ever hope to compete, let alone advance up the handicap scale by securing more and better horses. As horse prices for high-goal horses rise into six figure numbers, how can an aspiring young polo player ever hope to compete? Third, as more and more foreign players take positions on the higher-goal teams, there has become a virtual monopoly of foreign players, team managers, barn managers, horse trainers and grooms that occupy team positions from the high-goal down to the lower-goal levels, thereby making it extremely tough for U.S. players to find their way on a team or into a job in polo.

Another factor in all the discussion about creating opportunities for Registered Players, particularly for developing highgoal talent in the United States, is that of professionalism. It seems that over the past 20 or so years, players who advance in handicap generally expect to, and have been able to, be paid to play. This era of professionalism is worldwide and all polo these days seems to revolve around professional players who are controlling who plays when and where in just about every level of polo in just about every country in the world.

  The American rule, as written, will not help American players or American polo. At the 20- or 22-goal level it will greatly reduce the number of teams, especially in the summer. With high goal polo on both the East and West coast and maybe an American high goal player in England and two American high goalers on the same team, there simply aren’t enough to go around as most sponsors are zero or 1 goal. That said, everyone recognizes that we often have a problem getting Americans on teams where the controlling professional is Argentine. They understandably want to bring up their friend or cousin from Argentina who is very eager to get a job playing in the U.S. The American rule is designed to solve this problem, but will have the unintended consequence of reducing competition, raising costs of a sport that is already too expensive and putting out of work the numerous South African, Canadian, Mexican, English, Australian and New Zealand 4- to 6-goal players who are critical in putting together much of our 12- to 20-goal polo. Less teams mean less opportunities for U.S. players. It is easy to identify the flaws in a rule but not so easy to come up with a better way to solve the problem it addresses. One solution is to permit three foreign players on a team but mandate a substantially higher entry fee to be paid to the USPA for a fund to support opportunities for American players. Another solution might be to limit the maximum number of Argentines on a team to two as they seem to be creating the issue that has caused the rule. Part of this problem also has been caused by the compression of handicaps at the 0- to 2-goal level. Where American amateurs used to put together teams to play in low-goal circuit tournaments, now at least one pro is required for even the lowest goal events. The result is virtually every player is a patron or professional. The requirement of professionals for even the lowest-goal tournaments has exacerbated the lack of opportunity for American amateurs. This rule is designed to solve a very real problem. However, in its present form it is a “bag of worms.” It needs to be revisited and improved rather than its present knee-jerk response. —Steven Orthwein, 4 goals

The USPA Board of Governors is quick to point out that the 2010 changes to Rule 1. TEAMS is intended to create playing opportunities for young, developing Registered Players—those hailing from the U.S—and the change to the rule is not intended to create jobs for professional players; however, in an important way these rule changes are just that—a way to create jobs on polo teams at all levels for Registered “professional” Players.

The rule change is not, as some critics have opined, all about creating (some say forcing or mandating by rule) high-goal opportunities for U.S. professionals. The change to the rule is more fundamental than that because the changes affect polo competition from the 22-goal level and below—the type of polo that is the training and proving grounds for developing and aspiring polo players of all ages and nationalities. As a matter of fact, it was determined by the USPA Board of Governors that there were not enough U.S. citizen, higher-goal players (6-goal handicap and above) to fill out the team citizenship requirements for team rosters in 26-goal competition for 2010. Many point to just that fact as appalling and one of the main reason these changes were put into effect. There are so few Registered Players competing in 26-goal events in the United States or anywhere else in the world. It was hoped that over the next few years the rule change would create opportunities to develop higher-goal Registered Players that would eventually be able to compete at all levels of the sport, particularly at the 26- goal level and beyond into competitive, national teams in international polo events such as the Cup of the Americas, the Westchester Cup and the Camacho Cup.

As noted above, some opponents complain that the changes are nothing more than restrictions based on nationality and that these types of restrictions will do little to make any real difference in increasing the number of higher-goal Registered Players. Critics of the impending rule change cite other factors for the decline of higher-goal Registered players, mainly that Argentina and other countries have maintained an equine culture that naturally spawns many new players and horse-care people. In addition, say the critics, many young people born and raised in the United States have little affinity to the equine lifestyle with few opportunities to grow up on or to live near a horse farm or ranch.

I understand the USPA’s side, but what makes Canadians different is Canada is the only other country that relies on the USPA for its rules and handicap system. We don’t have our own set of rules and handicaps. We’ve had Canadians that were, and still are, members of the board of governors and other USPA officials. Canadian clubs require members to be USPA members. I became a member in 1993 but didn’t play, didn’t step foot in the U.S. until ‘95. There is no reason Canadians should be excluded. I understand the Olympic rules, but it is pretty simple. When it comes to a national team, show a passport. I shouldn’t have to [show a passport] to play in a 16- or 20-goal at International Polo Club or anywhere. For me personally, I’ve paid taxes in the U.S., married an American, own a home in the U.S., all my ties are in the U.S. but only hold a canadian passport.

There are only four Canadian players that play professionally in the U.S.: Steve Dalton, Todd Offen, myself, and now Rob Stenzel. [Aside from Stenzel] we have played the last 10 to 20 years in the U.S. It’s not like there is a flood of us playing here. I’m in my 13th year playing in the U.S.

The rule itself, I think it will help. I don’t think it is a bad rule. I can see it helping, definitely. Like all new USPA rules, someone can always find a back door to it, but it is a start. [A similar] rule was in effect in ‘95, and that is what helped me get a job. Got my start because of that rule. Canadians were considered Americans and White Birch needed an American player. I don’t know if it will encourage young players but will offer more opportunities. Americans can be the laziest things there are, especially in the last five years. If they don’t get a high-goal playing job they don’t want to muck out. It will create more opportunities. It is opening doors, but you have to find the right kids to go through those doors. In their defense, you have to come mounted, have eight good horses and it is impossible to get going unless they can get help. —Brandon Phillips, 5 goals

 

Few want to work seven days a week at a risky and tenuous business that offers but a few the chances to advance up the handicap scale with hopes of secured employment, let alone making a decent living. As always in this sport, it is nearly impossible (though there are some exceptions) for any player to become a higher-handicapped player in the United States without some kind of family support network, funding assistance and an understanding of the pursuit of a highergoal handicap, either as an amateur or a professional.

Player or team restrictions in USPA sanctioned polo are not new. The 1993 USPA Blue Book stated for the first time in bold, black font indicating a change to the USPA Rules, under Rule 2. PLAYERS:

2.f. No foreign player who is sponsored and under 6 goals will be allowed to play in a tournament with an upper limit of 20 goals or above. Foreign players are individuals who are not U.S. Citizens. Canadian citizens handicapped by the USPA will be considered U.S. Citizens for the purpose of this rule. Questions regarding whether a player is sponsored or not for purposes of this rule will be decided by the USPA Chairman or his deputy. On occasion invited foreign teams may be exempted from this rule by the USPA Chairman. Exception to this rule for individuals may be granted upon written request to the USPA Chairman and Chairman of the National Handicap Committee, who in their joint discretion, may grant such exception.

Criteria to be considered for individual exception included length of USPA membership; length of residency in the U.S.; extent and amount of play in United States polo.

One of the main reasons for the 1993 change to USPA Rule 2. PLAYERS (later to be known as the “Player Exemption Rule”) was to help keep better track of foreign players who were largely unknown to the USPA Handicap Committee. Unknown foreign ringers was the primary issue as many high-goal teams would “hide” a player either by registering foreign players close to the beginning of a tournament, thereby giving little chance for the official USPA handicappers to evaluate and assign a valid handicap; or, by “hiding” the abilities of an unknown player in lower-goal levels of competition in the United States. This so called “hidden ringer” would be registered and perhaps asked to play at a reduced, somewhat diminished level, until his handicap was secured from the USPA. In some cases, these “sleeper” players suddenly became better players (“ringers”) when placed on high-goal teams. These type of under-handicapped players spurred the USPA to “do something” about this ringer or unknown player phenomena, and came up with the change to Rule 2.

 

I am for the American Rule, but it should be for all levels, including 26-goal. Here is why: First, in general, there are no new up-and-coming American polo players, except maybe a handful. Soon there won’t be a single American player on any team in the U.S., especially in high goal.

Outside of the U.S. there are zero American professionals playing at any level. There are many american players right now that do no get enough opportunity to play. Second, the very few young players seem to have difficulty getting on the field and playing tournaments, especially 14-goals or above. Why? [They are] not good enough, not sharp enough? The only way to really improve is to play tournaments. The higher the handicap the better.

For an american player, or one with a promising future, to get better and be competitive (compared to an Argentine of the same handicap), he must play high goal or at the highest level possible. In Argentina, up-and-coming players get exposure playing tons of high-goal tournaments and/or they get opportunities to play with a high-goal player who will teach him and help improve his game. Also, there are a lot more opportunities to play medium goal and up.

For the American player, the only chance to play 26 goal is at International Polo Club two months out of the year. The rest will be 20 goal. Again, when a player has played a higher level of polo at any handicap and pretty much all year round and/or with high goal players (teaching them), they will have the experience needed to outshine and perform better than a player without the exposure or experience, like the American player.

In a few years it will create more top American players than we can imagine. There are many American players that with a little opportunity, exposure and sponsorship will go up in handicap rather quickly and shine at any level. —Luis Escobar, 7 goals

One of the unintended consequences of the 1993 change to Rule 2 (some say not so unintended) was the fact that many U.S. born and raised players were provided additional opportunities to play in highergoal events. Many medium and high-goal U.S. players have stated emphatically that this Exemption Rule allowed them many years of opportunity to play better polo and without playing better, high-goal polo, they would not have been able to advance into the higher-handicap levels.

Opposition gradually grew to the socalled “player exemption” rule, based mainly on apparent inconsistencies in the application of the rule (i.e. that perhaps too many exemptions were granted without comprehensive, consistent guidelines as to who was to be exempted and why) as well as questionable legal arguments that the USPA could not make a rule prohibiting teams from selecting players, as long as those players were USPA members in good standing. The exemption opponents view influenced the USPA Board of Governors enough so that in 2002, there was another change to Rule 2. PLAYERS, replacing the 1993 2.f. language stated above with the following: 2.f. No players handicapped with a “T” handicap at 6 goals or less will be allowed to play in a tournament with an upper limit of 16 goals or above.

It was thought by some, that by applying a “T” (denoting “temporary”) to handicaps of unknown or foreign players who had not been adequately reviewed by USPA officials for handicapping purposes would help address the unknown, potential ringer problem of under-handicapped players. Most say the assigning of a “T” handicap to unknown players did little to solve the ringer problem mainly because it is difficult to adequately observe new players for valid handicap evaluation, a problem that may have been more appropriately addressed by a twice a year handicapping process currently in use. Many, particularly professional players who may have benefited from the player restriction rule, have declared that the 2002 change to Rule 2 ceased providing ample opportunities for players from the United States to participate in high-goal events.

Before the 2010 rule changes were approved by the USPA Board of Governors, a legal opinion was obtained concerning the “legality” of team or player restrictions. Craig Galle, an attorney from Wellington, Florida summed up the findings of the legal research in a letter to the USPA. It reads, in part:

Americans need to take advantage of this opportunity. Take it seriously and use it as a stepping-stone. In this day and age, [the rule] may be necessary. It may help some of these guys get jobs. I think it will help. Young American players should watch American players that have been successful and see how they’ve done it. They will have to step up to the plate. —Joey Casey, 5 goals

 

“... a challenge to the proposed Rule change would be unsuccessful for the reasons set forth below.

First, as a private, voluntary association, the USPA is free to set its own internal rules and guidelines. ... If a member is unhappy with the USPA’s Rules or By-laws, they may resign. Similarly, if a prospective member does not agree with the language of the USPA’s Rules or By-laws, it is their choice whether they wish to join or not.

 

I feel that this is long overdue. We need to support our own young players as they try to improve in this sport. Unfortunately, there never seems to be a lack of Argentine cousins, etc. that will be hired by their friends and family. They seem to be more reluctant to hire the American players than the Americans feel about hiring the Argentines. I can’t see a downside for the American players. Why limit the rule to 22-goal and under? Why should we exclude the U.S. Open from this rule? There will not be any good American players in a few years if the USPA doesn’t do something. It’s about time we show some patriotism, we are the only country that doesn’t support our own. —John Gobin, 5 goals

Second, assuming that a member or prospective member were to argue that the proposed USPA Rule change is “unconstitutional” because it discriminates based upon race, nationality or origin, such an argument would likely be unsuccessful. Private associations and clubs are free to discriminate based upon race, nationality or origin provided that there is no “state action.” In general terms, state action is only implicated where a company, club or association receives governmental funding. ...

In sum, the proposed USPA Rule change is legally supportable.”

Even though the USPA Board of Governors overwhelming approved the 2010 change to Rule 1, the change is not without its opponents. Several Canadian professionals have requested that the rule change exclude Canadian Affiliate Player Members, arguing that by virtue of being former USPA Registered Players, the Canadian players should be “grandfathered” in and be considered the same as a U.S. Citizen for purposes of this rule. Others have felt that the use of the term “sponsor” in the rule is the first time in history that the USPA rules makes a distinction between a “sponsor” as opposed to all members being labeled “players” and that denoting team sponsorship also implies to some, that by default, this rule was intended to promote job creation rather than polo playing opportunities for registered players. In addition, the USPA Board of Governors did consider a potential downside to the rule changes, noting that some teams and clubs would prefer to not play in USPA sanctioned events to “get around” the changes to Rule 1 in 2010.

Many teams at many clubs at many handicap levels have begun to prepare for polo competition in 2010. Most understand the USPA intends to stand by its convictions that in the long term, these rule changes will help create playing opportunities for aspiring Registered Players.

Team sponsors, team managers and club managers have been asking the USPA for lists of Registered and Affiliate Player Members. In addition, Affiliate Players have been asked to confirm if they are properly classified as Affiliates or to provide proof of a claim of being a Register Player. If there are any questions about this rule, contact the USPA for more detailed information.

I read in POLO Players’ Edition of the decision by the USPA that one of the players in USPA-sanctioned tournaments must be American. I am amazed that in the United States, a country renowned for open competition, that a policy which has been proven a failure for 40 years by the British would be adopted. It is admirable that the Association is trying to provide jobs and training for native Americans but this is a proven incorrect policy. An active ladder of progressively higher rated tournaments on a broad basis is the only method of giving native Americans the experience required to move up to the highest levels. They then can go to Argentina or Europe to complete their experience and hone their skills.

My personal experience with this rule in the UK is totally negative. In 1993 we had on our team young Oliver Hipwood. In the second game of the season he was knocked down by a player who had never played polo above a low-level (8-goal). Oliver was injured and out of the tournament as was the unsafe low goal player who caused the accident. As Oliver was our designated UK player I was under great pressure to replace him with another UK player. There was not one qualified who had played at the 22 goal [level] of the Queens Cup and who had a 3-goal rating handicap. I refused to put a player on the team who was not safe because they had not worked up to a 22-handicap level polo. I told the HPA Secretary that if an injury occurred to one of my players as a result of being forced to use an unsafe player, the liability would be on the HPA and wrote a letter accordingly. The rule was waived in that case and we got another non-UK experienced 22- goal level player. At a meting of the patrons, (there were 11 teams but only one sponsored by a UK resident), all of the sponsors (including the UK sponsor) of the high goal teams agreed that we should not be forced to utilize unsafe players. What will be the USPA answer to this problem?

The USPA has, in effect, been trying to disenfranchise Canadian and Mexican clubs, which have been part of the USPA for a long time. In as much as our members in these two countries are USPA members, are they considered American for purposes of this rule? In 1993 with the attempts to stop ringers, Canadians were considered American for purposes of this rule.

It is also notable that the USPA schedules tournaments and some of its higher-goal clubs schedule tournaments, which preclude good players from going to play in Argentina in September to January. This is a key area for up-and-coming young players to increase their skills and raise their ratings. The case in point is the club in Santa Barbara where the Pacific Coast Open tournament runs into September. It is notable that the highest-rated Americans generally played in the Argentine [season] to achieve their highest ratings. Tommy Wayman, Joe Barry and both Gracidas are cases in point.

The USPA needs to emphasize across the country the intermediate polo that leads to high-goal and also provide the opportunity for American pros who must make a living during the summer months the ability to go to Argentina to perfect their play. The concentration of all high-goal polo in one site, Florida, means that the ability of many pros who can’t travel is limited. The USPA should consider moving the highest levels of polo around the country to attract the attention and interest of patrons and pros and promote the prestige and importance of 14-, 16-, 18- and 20-goal polo.

—Fred Mannix
Calgary, Alberta, Canada

 
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