Hopes that the Gilgronis/Major League Rugby dispute will end quickly are naive at best. The more likely result is a power struggle that sees a prominent player exit the league.
Austin’s disqualification from the 2022 Championship Series as a result of alleged salary cap infringements was the end of the saga’s first chapter, not the very beginning of the story. The story will have significant nuance as details trickle out, but its hard to not see it as a battle between Gilgronis and Giltinis owner Adam Gilchrist and MLR Commissioner George Killebrew. As this first chapter comes to a close, its Killebrew that has the upper hand.
To understand the politics of the matter, one must understand the league’s business structure. Major League Rugby is structured as a Limited Liability Company, or LLC. In many ways, the role of commissioner is similar to the role of a CEO of a publicly traded corporation. The CEO is beholden to the Board of Directors, which is elected by the shareholders. For Major League Rugby and other LLCs, the ownership of the teams acts as the Board. Therefore, the commissioner is hired and fired by the teams’ representatives. It’s the same structure that hired Dean Howes as the league’s first commissioner in 2018, and it’s the same structure that dismissed Howes in 2019 after issues mounted within the league. Not least of those issues was Howes ending negotiations with a potential LA Coast expansion team and offering the license to none other than Adam Gilchrist. You can read about that and more in this fantastic piece from 2020 by Martin Pengelly for The Guardian.
Punishing the Gilgronis was certainly not done on a whim. The league has acted as if litigation was on the horizon since the move was announced. Several have lamented that such actions were taken immediately prior to the playoffs, casting a shadow over the MLR’s crown jewel. That interpretation is backwards. The more likely scenario is that the upcoming playoffs created a deadline. Surely, the league (and, by proxy, its owners) went through several phases of investigation and potential resolution. The best outcome for Killebrew would’ve been a solution where all the owners felt they’d won. That likely would’ve resulted in extremely heavy fines and/or lesser on-field punishments for the Austin franchise. Disqualifying Austin was the ticking time bomb. Without another resolution that allowed owners to put the situation behind them, the bomb blew.
The Austin disqualification is not Killebrew drawing a line in the sand. In reality, he needs significant support from ownership. That means a coalition of owners were willing to back their commissioner on the issue. Otherwise, he’d be updating his resume right now. (By the time this ugliness is over, he might still choose to do so, but I digress.)
That brings us back to the heart of the issue. Gilchrist remains one of the most powerful people in American rugby. The other owners, via the league, were willing to take drastic action against him. That doesn’t happen without real anger.
It also doesn’t happen without significant organization. Think the other owners are going to quickly flip on Killebrew? Just look at the lack of public information that’s trickled out. There have been absolutely no comments on the record or back channel leaks to reporters. The other owners are staying quiet and in line behind their chosen leader.
Its worth noting that Killebrew has accumulated significant political capital over his two-and-a-half year tenure. Steering the league through the pandemic, keeping all teams afloat, the creation of The Rugby Network, the implementation of the MLR Collegiate Draft, the expansion of Grassroots Development, and a role in a winning World Cup bid all happened under his leadership. That’s the kind of type of weight you need behind you when you’re going to go head-to-head with a powerful owner.
None of that means cracks won’t form. Generally speaking, LLCs protect ownership from liability except when there’s provable fraud. If what allegedly occurred rises to that level, Gilchrist’s personal assets could be subject to a civil claim by the other owners. For Gilchrist, everything the league or its owners say will be viewed through the lens of a potential libel suit. Nothing makes people question their alliances like the prospect of losing a lot of money. Unless the other owners have decided they want to proceed without Gilchrist, the best solution at this point is convincing all sides to lay down their litigious arms. If not, this could spiral into a legal hellscape that could take years to resolve.
Adam Gilchrist will fill MLR news this off season. George Killebrew will do the same as a proxy for ownership.
Major League Rugby might not be big enough for both of them.
3 thoughts on “The Gilgronis Disqualification is Inherently Political”
Nice commentary. What are your thoughts now that the Giltini’s have been disqualified as well. The second of Gilchrist’s owned teams
It means the piece I had scheduled for today is undergoing dramatic edits. Three words: Gilchrist is done.
very informative piece. for me being a rugby fan in the USA since 2011, i wish very much for the MLR to be succesful. having names like “Gilgronis” & “Giltinis” just makes it seem to outsiders that it is not a serious league when, in fact, it very much is.