“The problem now is figuring out how we can regulate the payments and endorsements so the IAAF and its members can keep control of the
sport.” Ollan Cassell, 1979, Executive Director of the AAU.
This statement seems oddly appropriate today as NGBs, established as non-profit organizations, attempt to identify new streams of sustainable revenues by identifying new ways to leverage the amateur side of the sport to gain more control over the professional athlete. Mr. Cassell said this in response to the passing of the Amateur Sports Act. The Amateur Sports Act opened the door for athlete-led activism that challenged the notion of amateurism supported by the IOC, IAAF and the various NGBs and, eventually, allowed the athletes to earn income directly from the sport. Athletes in the 70′s and 80′s fought hard to end authoritarian rule and redefine the relevance of amateurism by consistently organizing to create new systems of open compensation. Many of these athletes risked permanent disqualification from the Olympic movement to liberalize the amateur rules that precluded athletes from competing in independent, open competitions for prize money or engage in third party sponsorship opportunities. Each push forward was greeted with threats and sanctions until eventually the athletes, working as individuals as well as collectively, finally forced a change towards a healthier, more sustainable profession. It’s clear that without those early activist pushing the envelope, the Olympic Games would not be open to the professional athlete and the IAAF World Championships would not award significant prize money.
Profession: a paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.
Note: For the purposes of this writing I define the profession of track and field as the events that are not national team events.
For as much as the athletes have advanced the professional earnings opportunities of track and field, we have failed to advance the notion of the profession of the track and field athlete as an employee or worker of the IAAF or the NGB. But we are workers and we are employees. Track and field athletes trade our abilities to entertain by running, jumping and throwing. The decision of the NGBs to not recognize you as employee allows them to avoid affording you the same rights they provide to those who work at their respective headquarters. Do you think USATF or the USOC have retirement plans? Do you think they provide complete health insurance to their employees? Do you think they have maternity leave policies? and other fringe benefits? Why aren’t you – the athlete – entitled to the same?
The Importance of Strong Middle Class
Compensation models in Track and Field at the athlete level have evolved in a top-heavy manner. There is a poor distribution of wealth across event groups, genders, and even countries. And the growing disparity between the haves and have nots in track and field creates a chaste system that exposes a large majority of athletes to exploitation. As one sponsor put it,”The less your event looks like the 100m, the mile, or the marathon, the more spectacular your performances have to be…” to earn significant sponsorship support. Sponsorship support is critical in a sport with prize money opportunities that barely break poverty levels for all but the consistent top 3 finishers in global competition. We are a sponsorship (or third party) funded sport. Athletes mistakenly express frustrations at sponsors for pulling back. Sponsors don’t own the sport. They support the sport. NGBs govern the sport. And our NGBs and international federations perpetuate a system that’s not athlete-centric, because they want to maintain a pseudo-amateurism to the sport. As a result, sponsors reward those athletes with the highest profiles or best performances – just like every other sport. The federations continue to advance the best model for the NGB to maintain control. Why do you think the NGBs ask you to remain silent about the issues at the 2014 Indoor Nationals or the #wedemandchange announcement at the 2012 Olympics? Because it’s not in their best interests to encourage athlete-activism. As a result, athlete-led movements for change are often undermined by the individual need to maximize earnings potential – If you don’t compete, you cannot earn an income. Furthermore, top-earners are often convinced by NGBs that they are the ones with the most to lose should we push for a more equitable distribution of direct earnings.
History has plenty of examples to suggest that this is not the case. That by working together to collectively lift the middle class will increase the overall dollars within the sport. Athlete activism in the NFL and the PGA started at about the same time as it did in track and field – 70′s and 80′s. The athlete activists in football and golf did not have to fight the notion of amateurism, but could focus their efforts on improving minimum salaries and creating long-term deferred compensation packages (retirement plans). By securing a minimum level of compensation, retirement and other forms of due process. They created the foundation for a system that could sustain unbelievable growth. Once the leagues and the athletes agreed on terms, the league could act as more of commercial marketing enterprise to grow the overall value for the sport.
1984 – NFL Average Salary with Signing Bonus = $160,000
2014 – NFL LEAGUE MINIMUM for Rookies = $420,000
1984 – PGA Top Earner = = $476,000
2014 - #76 on the PGA Tour Earnings = $478,000
Players and governing bodies will always find themselves at odds with each other, but without the ability to collectively market the athletes the governing bodies CANNOT guarantee the quality of any game, tournament, or competitions. Working together, these two groups – an athletes’ association and governing body – can achieve staggering results. Can you imagine a world in which track and field athletes were paid a minimum of $420,000? Or where the 76th ranked track and field athlete earned $478,000 in a year? I can, but not under the current model.
The Role of the TFAA
So how do we build a better, stronger sport? For starters this is not a question that you want others to answer for you. The athletes need to engage in and lead this conversation – if not through the TFAA, then get involved at the AAC level to understand the other side of the sport. We believe the future requires a strong independent athletes’ association. We believe that history shows this creates a system with the tools necessary to grow the overall valuation of the sport. We believe that all our elite athlete members must come together to restructure the competitive schedule to ensure the highest level of competition at every event throughout the year. We believe that we must push to be recognized as workers in order to receive improved health insurance, retirement planning and improved working conditions. We know that this means we will have to engage in dialogue and debate with NGBs, Meet Directors, Sponsors, Agents, and even Athletes to move forward. We can build a better sport, but we have to work together.
And in case you missed it, please read this post from fellow athlete, TFAA member and World Champion Lashinda Demus on being an individual sport but also working together for the greater good: