With defending champ out, U.S. Skating team selection process could be muddle again

Jason Brown at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  An injury has forced him out of this year's event.

Jason Brown at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships.  An injury has forced him out of this year's event.

It won’t stir a relatively widespread public reaction like the one that followed the selection of the U.S. women’s singles figure skating team for the 2014 Olympics.

But defending champion Jason Brown’s injury withdrawal from the upcoming U.S. Championships in St. Paul may lead to hot debates within the sport’s ever-shrinking fan base about the choices of the U.S. men’s team for the March World Championships in Boston.

All this could be avoided if U.S. Figure Skating would apply specific numerical weight to each of the discretionary criteria it had established to cover such situations.

One would think USFS might have learned from the brouhaha surrounding the thoroughly justified but badly explained selection of Ashley Wagner over Mirai Nagasu for the third spot on the Sochi Winter Games team.

But some things never change.

The current men’s situation is different, because injuries are involved, whereas both Wagner (fourth place) and Nagasu (third) competed at the 2014 U.S. Championships.

Joshua Farris, third at last year's nationals, is sidelined by a concussion.

Joshua Farris, third at last year's nationals, is sidelined by a concussion.

It still cries out just as much for clarity because 2014 Olympian Brown, 21, is not the only top U.S. man forced out of nationals with an injury, even if he is the only one with a possible shot at worlds.

Rising talent Joshua Farris, 21, who finished third last year, will miss the entire season after sustaining a concussion following a fall on a quadruple jump attempt during a mid-July practice.

Both Brown, whose problem is a back strain, and Farris have the right to petition for a spot on the world team.  The idea behind allowing that petition is to give USFS the chance to field the most competitive team possible at a major event like the Olympics or worlds.

After announcing his withdrawal from nationals on a Thursday media conference call, Brown said it was too early to think about such a request.  He is focused more on healing the problem that also led him to withdraw from his second Grand Prix event, the NHK Trophy, in late November.

Farris’ coach, Christy Krall, said in a text message Friday he would not have recovered enough to skate at the 2016 worlds.

Looking at the sort-of-objective criteria as objectively as possible, Brown would almost certainly get a world team place, based largely on his having been by far the top U.S. man (fourth) at last year’s worlds but also on a third at his other 2015 Grand Prix event, Skate America. 

Only the 2016 U.S. champion is guaranteed a place at worlds (as long as he or she meets the age and minimum score requirements).  For everyone else, it’s anything goes.

These are the criteria.  They are listed in (amorphous) order of importance:

1. Most recent U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

2. Most recent Grand Prix Final.

3. Most recent ISU World Figure Skating Championships.

4. Most recent Grand Prix Series Competitions (six events).

5. Most recent Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

6. Challenger Series Senior International Competitions during the current season.

7. Previous season’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

8. Most recent Olympic Games.

9. Most recent World Junior Figure Skating Championships.

10. Most recent Junior Grand Prix Final.

Muddying the waters even further, according to USFS guidelines it is not just placement in those events but “performance (which can include performance data) and competitive field of the events” that can be taken into consideration.

All that only adds more unnecessary subjectivity to a sport already so subjective its results often leave both insiders and outsiders perplexed and quick to level accusations of favoritism.

In the selection case involving Nagasu and Wagner, some critics charged USFS with prejudice (Nagasu is Japanese-American) while others said the federation was swayed by commercial considerations (Wagner had been widely promoted leading to Sochi.)

In fact, the established criteria supported picking Wagner, but there could have been less acrimony and debate if the system followed a simple mathematical formula (criterion 1 worth, say, a multiplier of .4, criteria 2 and 3 each worth .2, etc.)

Any possible selection muddle notwithstanding, the absence of Brown and Farris both dilutes the nationals men’s field substantially and opens the way for a new face on the world team two years before the Olympics.

Nathan Chen at the start of his winning Junior Grand Prix free skate.

Nathan Chen at the start of his winning Junior Grand Prix free skate.

The best outcome would be for Nathan Chen, 16, to earn – and I mean earn – that spot, as Chen has shown the gumption to attempt multiple quadruple jumps in a program at a time when that is becoming de rigueur for the top men in the sport.

In winning the Junior Grand Prix Final last month, Chen did three quads in the free skate.  Despite a fall on one and a negative grade of execution on another, he received full base value credit for all three.

The lack of a quad has become such an issue for Brown that my colleague Christine Brennan of USA Today asked him on the conference call if trying to master one had contributed to his back injury.  His answer was instructively non-committal.

“I try really hard not to pinpoint it to one certain thing,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, Farris tweeted Nov. 6, “Calling it #figureskating is debatable. I'm tired of seeing my friends hurting themselves just to do the most jumps.”  No matter how painfully accurate that might be, success in the sport under its current scoring system demands taking such risks.

Without Brown at worlds, the U.S. is at serious risk of losing the third men’s spot it regained by the smallest possible margin for 2015 and barely held onto for this year.  That is why USFS wants to send the most competitive team possible.

It can and should make the process much more transparent.