Where did it go wrong?

We updated last week that we were waiting to publish anything further on this topic until the final USA Rugby Disciplinary Report was available. We’ve been told that the report has been shared with USA Rugby and it is in the final stages of review. As this has dragged on more than a year, we feel we must move forward. If anything, we hope that this will help spur action from the involved parties.

During YSC’s investigation we communicated with Cooke, Tornetto, representatives from Union County, Empire GU, Monmouth and USA Rugby. The focus of this article will be on our investigation, our findings and the many failures that occurred around this incident.

May 11, 2019 began like any other normal rugby day, Union County women’s rugby was playing a social match against a local opponent. In the blink of an eye everything changed as Crystal Cooke was physically and verbally assaulted by her coach, Ivano Mirandi. After storming onto the field, Mirandi physically removed Cooke from the pitch without her consent and verbally accosted her throughout the incident. 

Fast forward to today, Cooke and Angelina Tornetto have been charged with misconduct and provisionally suspended from all rugby while Mirandi has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Where did it go wrong?

Union County

There are many differing accounts of the incident but there is little disagreement that Cooke was physically removed from the field without her consent. Union County Women’s Executive Board (WEB) reacted quickly after the match and took several steps that in their view handled the situation. 

First, they held a meeting with Coach Mirandi to discuss his actions. Mirandi was then required to retake the USA Rugby SafeSport modules. 

WEB also held a meeting with Cooke to discuss her actions. After that meeting it was found that she violated the team’s Code of Conduct around alcohol. Due to violating the Code of Conduct, they suspended her for 20 days. We would note that Cooke refutes this allegation and the grounds for the suspension.

Lastly they held an open forum at practice to discuss the incident and implemented an anonymous feedback form attached to their weekly email to the players. 

This is the first failure point we identified. While we applaud Union County for moving swiftly, the given sanction to the coach was insufficient. Verbal and physical assault of a player from a person in authority is unacceptable and it should have been dealt with severely. Instead they punished Cooke and started the victim blaming. Further, the issue should have also been immediately reported to the Empire Disciplinary Committee for review.

USA Rugby SafeSport

We’re aware of at least five reports that were filed with SafeSport. SafeSport opted not to investigate and instead sent it to the NGB, USA Rugby. This makes sense as SafeSport’s mandate centers around investigating sexual abuse. NGBs are the appropriate place for reports of physical and verbal assault. Originally we were told that USA Rugby also declined to investigate but we discovered last week that World Rugby Judicial Officer (JO), Gary Heavner was appointed. This caused further confusion as Heavner is also serving as the Empire Geographic Union (GU) Disciplinary Chair. Additionally confusing things, Heavner reported on the investigation and gave an initial list of violations on a June 8 Empire GU Board call. It was not made clear on that call that it was an ongoing USA Rugby investigation.

This is the second failure we identified. It wasn’t clear until very recently WHO was investigating the incident. The players were never told that USA Rugby or that Heavner was investigating on their behalf. Instead they were allowed to believe that the Empire DC was handling it. Why wasn’t this made clear to the players? Of course SafeSport allegations are confidential (rightly so) but understanding governance in these types of situations is critical.

Heavner opened the investigation on behalf of USA Rugby in early December and an initial hearing was scheduled in early January. This was pushed back multiple times due to various requests from the players and Heavner (players seeking representation, COVID-19, etc). Finally the hearing was rescheduled for June 8. Heavner did give advance notice of the hearing but it was a scant 72 hours. Short notice like this isn’t that abnormal but one explanation for the “rush” may be that the players had begun a social media awareness campaign in late May lasting through early June. While most of their original blog and social media posts from May have been deleted, a few remain in place from June. We believe this created pressure on USA Rugby, Empire and ultimately Heavner. 

The quick turnaround was a burden for the players as they had a hard time getting in contact with their representation. Unfortunately, the players chose not to attend the hearing. The JO proceeded with the hearing, notified the players of the outcome via email and then gave a report on the June 8 Empire Board call. Except in this case, there was no outcome…as of the posting date of this article, the players are still in limbo.

This is the third failure we identified. Holding an investigation open for eight months and counting is outrageous. The notice of charges to the players indicated that they were suspended indefinitely until they appeared before Heavner. This is technically appropriate in Elite level rugby, but hardly ever enforced in adult senior rugby disciplinary proceedings. This is exactly why we have an appeals process, disciplinary committees adjudicate and then players have the chance to appeal if they desire.

Investigations

USA Rugby 

We know this is confusing, stick with us as we get into the details and try to make it easier to digest. As mentioned before, on behalf of USA Rugby, Heavner investigated the allegations of Mirandi physically and verbally assaulting Cooke. He also investigated allegations of Cooke consuming alcohol at a park that prohibited it as well as misconduct around social media. 

Heavner gathered over 60 witness and character statements in regards to the incident. Ultimately he found that the physical and verbal assault didn’t rise to a “high enough level” and that the allegations lacked credibility. As a result he cleared Mirandi of any wrongdoing. While we’re still waiting for the final USA Rugby disciplinary report, Heavener made this clear on the June 8 Empire GU call.

The fourth failure is again not holding the coach accountable for his actions. Regardless of what “level” the physical assault rose to, a person should not be removed from the field without their consent. Period. 

The fifth failure is further punishing Cooke and perpetuating victim blaming. We feel there was overreach by Heavner in regards to the alcohol consumption violation. Cooke had already served a 20 day suspension from Union County. Why punish her twice?

The sixth failure is in regards to the misconduct charge around social media. Heavner references World Rugby Regulation 20.g in regards to the misconduct violation. We understand that this regulation endeavors to keep disciplinary proceedings confidential and that all parties should not “adversely impact such proceedings and/or which are prejudicial to the interests of the Game and/or any Person and/or any disciplinary personnel”. But we would point your attention to the length of the investigation and that the players clearly felt that the proceedings were unjust. We’re opining here, but if you felt that your team, Union and NGB let you down…what would you have done to return to the game you loved?

Taking this a bit further, we don’t feel it’s appropriate for USA Rugby, GUs or Clubs to be actively policing their member’s social media. This is a slippery slope that will more than likely lead to amplification instead of stamping out. While most will agree that social media is a powerful tool, it can also be wielded as a weapon. 

Empire

This is where our journey takes another twist. Cooke & Tornetto transferred twice after the May 11, 2019 incident, once for the 7s season and another time for fall XVs. The 7s transfer request was done digitally through USA Rugby following normal protocols. The digital transfer process includes confirmation by the departing team that the player is eligible and in good standing, the GU administrator checks the same and USA Rugby completes a final verification before the transfer is granted or denied. In this case, all parties approved and the request was granted.

The players then returned to Union County and registered with the club for the 2019 XVs season. In the first league match of the season (August 31), Cooke & Torrento were listed as reserves and were subbed into the game. Shortly after this match the players began communicating with Union County Captain Ashley Purper about transferring. Purper warned that they would “need a transfer waiver since they had played in a league match”. Purper also warned that she had experience with mid-season transfers and they “could often take a long time.”

Cooke & Tornetto proceeded with the transfer request in September 2019 by contacting USA Rugby Membership indicating that they “had accidentally CIPP’d with the wrong team”. This is patently false as the players were aware that a transfer waiver was required after speaking with their former captain. They were also aware that they had played in a league match and not CIPP’d for the wrong team. USA Rugby didn’t realize they were being misled and believing it was a genuine mistake, they manually moved the players from the Union County roster to Monmouth. This action removed the opportunity for Union County and Empire to approve or deny the transfer requests.

The lack of transfer waiver initiated an Empire investigation into Monmouth for playing ineligible players. We’ve confirmed with Union County and Monmouth that they didn’t initiate a request with Empire to investigate the lack of transfer waivers. Do note that this is refuted by Cooke & Torrento. Our suspicion is one that happens all across the country, you see a player in jersey A one week and then a few weeks later you see them in jersey B so you make some inquiries.

The Empire ruling for Cooke & Torrento misleading USA Rugby and transferring without a waiver will be released on the next Empire GU Board call. That call is currently scheduled for next Monday.

Here we have identified the seventh and eighth failure. First, Cooke & Tornetto were disingenuous in their actions and misled USA Rugby into transferring them without the required waivers. Secondly, this continues to show that the USA Rugby mid-season transfer process is confusing, easily manipulated and must be revamped.

Summary

The incident and surrounding activities are very complex. In the end we find that Cooke & Tornetto are victims of a many broken systems. They were failed by Union County, Empire and USA Rugby. We identified EIGHT failures that took place across all of these groups. While some may not agree with our findings, we urge each group to self reflect and work to understand the implicit biases that are clearly present in the system. We’d also urge where possible that policies and procedures are reviewed with an eye towards increasing diversity, inclusion and equity for all rugby players. 

Change can take ages but we know that Union County, USA Rugby and the Empire DC still have the chance to right these wrongs. They just have to choose to do the right thing.

We’d like to thank Crystal, Angelina, Union County, Monmouth, Empire GU and USA Rugby for their response to our various inquiries. We did afford all parties the opportunity to review our investigation notes and this subsequent article before publishing. Some parties opted to participate in that process while others did not.

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