The Players Must Be At The Table If They Are Also To Be The Meal

“The test of allegiance to a cause or people is the willingness to run the risk of repeating on old argument just one more time, or going one more round against a hostile, or much worst, indifferent audience.” 

Christopher Hitchens, in his memoir Hitch-22.

Track Hurdles

Amidst the swirling eddies and currents of a race, a champion must possess more than just strength, speed, and endurance.  He/she must also be able to “read the whitewater” to discern the fugitive line to victory.  Those who lack that critical capacity are pulled under in the sweep of the flow or find themselves shunted to a limpid side-pool wondering what became of the moment.

Today, on their own political course, the athletes of track and field find themselves looping around again full circle – or full oval, if you must – to a line they seem to discover once every generation, the one separating ‘what is’ from ‘what might be’.

Spurred by an arbitrary decision by the USATF’S national office which instituted a policy of enforcing IAAF advertising regulations restricting the size and number of commercial and club logos on athletes’ uniforms at USATF national championships, club championships, “Golden Spike” track meets, and road race championships, athletes gathered in St. Louis at the 33rd USA Track & Field Annual Meeting to voice their displeasure and concerns.  Once there, however, the meeting of the Athletes Advisory Committee — where the issue was raised — quickly turned chaotic. Live-streaming to the internet was discovered, tempers flared, sponsor walk-outs ensued, the room was cleared, then re-opened, but with the media now barred.

Ultimately, however, the athletes prevailed, in as much as they convinced the USATF board of directors to adopt their position in opposition to the logo policy in domestic meets.   The athletes’ cause was led by the Athletes Advisory Committee chairman Jon Drummond and David Greifinger, the former legal counsel to the USATF board, now serving as the athletes’ advocate.  Greifinger submitted a resolution that USATF lift its logo restrictions for competitions that are not classified as “international competitions” by the IAAF or conducted by the USOC.

The takeaway message from that meeting was simple, if the athletes cohere, their voice will carry.  Today, the Track & Field Athletes Association (TFAA) has taken up the mantel on behalf of their current and nascent members, affirming that the operating model of their sport has not been designed with the athletes’ best interests in mind.  However, though bolstered by the logos-on-uniforms issue, TFAA is still a fledgling organization (founded in December 2009). Which beggars the question, what is the true nature of its existence?  Is it resolved to take some kind of intelligibly vertebrate stance, striving to become one among equals in the determination of its membership’s fate?  Or is it only looking to work the margins, just another tender in a larger game beyond its capacity to engage much less control?

The great abolitionist Fredrick Douglass once said: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.”

Since the Amateur Athletic Union was created in 1887 to establish standards and uniformity in amateur sport, track and field in the USA has been regulated by the AAU (1887-1979) or its spin-off progeny, since 1992 called USA Track & Field.  Authorized by the USOC, this governing body is one of 213 member federations worldwide that make up the International Association of Athletics Federations.  Trapped in this labyrinth of controlling yet competing organizations, the athletes of track and field find themselves odd-man-out in a universe that consistently overlooks, dismisses, or burdens their interests.

The following is the IAAF’s description of itself:   “Through our council, committees and biannual congress, we oversee the rules and regulations of athletics [track and field]. We also approve all world records…And we organize the annual program of international competitions for the world’s elite athletes. (Athletics: The Global Sport,” IAAF Brochure, iaaf.org, Feb. 2003).

And now the IAAF’s Mission Statement:   “To foster the worldwide development of athletics, establishing friendly and loyal co-operation between all members for the benefit of athletics, peace and understanding between nations.”   (Athletics: The Global Sport,” IAAF Brochure, iaaf.org, Feb. 2003).

All very well and good, but in both cases you will not find a single mention of the athletes as central to the well-being of the enterprise, nor any enumeration advancing the sport toward true professionalism.  So while the IAAF and its 213 member federations perform many necessary and laudatory functions, what is abundantly clear is that the organization is not (nor was it ever intended to be) oriented toward those upon whose labor their existence is predicated.

In contrast, here is the Mission Statement of USGA, golf’s governing body:

  • Conduct 13 national championships each year,
  • Write and interpret the Rules of Golf,
  • Regulate and test all golf equipment for conformance to the Rules of Golf,
  • Maintain the USGA handicap and course rating system,
  • Provide research-based turf management expertise, and
  • Celebrate the history of the game.

And now, finally the PGA TOUR MISSION:   “To expand domestically and internationally to substantially increase player financial benefits (my emphasis) while maintaining its commitment to the integrity of the game. The PGA TOUR events are also committed to generating revenue for charitable causes in their communities.”

You see the distinction.  While other sports have long since segmented their specific constituent needs into discrete categories of mutually-supportive operations and oversight, for its part, track has limited the entire panoply to one organization – the governing body.  And though the athletes are represented in USATF by having a minimum 20% representation on all committees, task forces, and on the board of directors – and via the Athletes Advisory Committee – the following from the minutes of the December 4, 2011 USATF board of directors meeting is typical of the athletes’ position in matters critical to them:

“Logo issue:  Larry James, Mike McNees and Norm Wain will meet to finalize the Nike contract, so a response to the athletes can be delivered by the first of the year.”

When decisions are ultimately made, athletes are not represented as equal partners.  They are told to wait outside and a response to them will be forthcoming.  What has always been missing in track and field is a robust advocacy representing the interests of top athletes as an aggregate, while bargaining on their behalf along the corridors of commerce.  This is the legacy of the 19th century paternalism under which the sport was first organized, the vestiges of which continue to function to this day.

So where the athletes were once merely subjects to be ruled, today they have risen to the level of independent contractors — as the “amateur” model has had to shape-shift to accommodate the vast cultural and athletic changes of the last third of the 20th century.   What remains for the athletes is the final step in their evolution into political union and market viability.

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By the nature of their age, inexperience, and training requirements, athletes cannot expect to function as their own best advocates as individuals within the current system.  And with each athlete being represented by federation-sanctioned agents, or in some cases unregistered agents, there is neither enough collective power, nor an alternative opportunity to influence the status quo.  In all regards, this sport remains a closed shop with an imbalanced – and, at times, capricious – power structure.

Thus, as long as the athletes remain atomized, their best interests will never be realized when stood up against the powerful international bodies and sponsors that currently hold sway and which don’t regard the athletes as part of their primary mission, only cogs to be arranged for the betterment of it.  The constituency of athletes, in fact, has no standard bearer.

If only it were that benign. The stories of excess, duress, and transgress against athletes are legion.   In the past year former England Athletics team manager Ian Ladbrooke, who also served as elite athlete coordinator for three IAAF Gold Label road races in India, finally confessed to having cheated athletes (mainly Kenyan) to the tune of a minimum $330,000 in prize money over a several year stretch. Yet, despite all the problems and complaints about the missing funds, even after the transgressions were thoroughly reported by journalist Pat Butcher on his Globerunner blog ( Road Rage), the IAAF still awarded the races in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore Gold Label status.

“The point is, the international governing body doesn’t want to protect athletes in any way, shape, or form,” said Zane Branson, a working agent who represents many Kenyan runners.  “The problems in India were all documented, yet there was nothing forthcoming from the IAAF. So it went from a small problem to a major problem. And though a well-known athlete could take the hit, it really hurt the guys who made only $2000-$3000.  Their families depended on those earnings, and it devastated some families.”

“History is the story of freedom becoming conscious of itself.”  Georg Hegel

One lesson learned from competition is that when not pushed from behind or lured from the front we tend to unconsciously settle.  Over the course of the last thirty years, this sport has allowed just such a benign acceptance to slowly reduce its position in the ranks of sports until it now seems not only its plight, but its due to be so far behind the leaders.

Recall in Beijing 2008 how track was unceremoniously hip-checked off the Olympic prime-time stage by TV executives who lobbied the IOC in order to make room for the more commercially marketable sports of swimming (think Michael Phelps) and gymnastics (think hair gel and bird-like psyches).  What track athletes required was representation of standing to protect its root-and-branch prerogatives, the pruning of which should have invited intercession.  None was forthcoming.

Could an organization like TFAA, at some point, become the collective that leads the athletes into a properly powerful enough aggregate to stand four-square against the petty tyrannies that have led to the emasculation of this once proud endeavor?  And, if so, is an issue like the restriction of uniform logos a firm enough moral ground upon which to mount such a campaign?  Or, are the current imperatives less clear-cut?

With the hiring of marketing maven Max Siegel as USATF CEO, instinctively, hope blooms anew and many might say, warrants yet another wait-and-see period.  In an interview with Runner’s World’s Scott Douglas, Mr. Siegel suggested on several occasions that it was too early for him to make any definitive statement on the issues that currently animate the sport, as further study was necessary.

That said, and notwithstanding the expertise and passion Mr. Siegel may bring to his new position, as presently organized to regulate all aspects of track, field, road running, walking, youth, masters, mountain and trail running, can any leader be expected to handle the very particular needs of professional athletics while maintaining allegiance to his other constituent programs in a marketplace that is not similarly constituted?  Think if Little League, slow-pitch softball, and Major League Baseball were all under one umbrella organization with Major League players limited to 20% representation.

Remember, this governing body was formed after the break-up of the AAU in 1979. And yet, it seems to be in a constant state of reevaluating, resetting, and refiguring.  One wonders how many more USATF CEO hiring cycles will the sport have to go through before the athletes decide it isn’t about who holds the office, rather it is the structure of the organization, itself – and the athletes lack of equal standing in it – which is limiting their  opportunities, if only to fail at their own hand?  All the while realizing that it falls to the athletes to be the main course in whatever the athletic banquet may be.

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It is always an athlete’s first duty to be the best athlete possible. But the job of a professional athlete requires immeasurable amounts of dedication and hard work.  On top of which, the timeline for such activity is by nature’s cold calculation quite short. Therefore, asking an athlete to engage on the political frontlines while simultaneously exploring the outer limits of physical training mutually assures limiting both.  Which is why, athletes require systematic representation, not just as individual clients but in the aggregate over time.

While many observers considered original USATF executive director Ollan Cassell (1980-2007) to be an exemplar of the Machiavellian school, rule through division, the sport has now been through two-plus more leaders since (remember the 19 months of interim leadership by the recently departed USATF COO Mike McNees).  And yet the athletes are still facing many of the same issues that were in play when Mr. Cassell was in office, while their advancement has been tepid, at best.

A recent survey conducted by Jack Wickens of the USA Track & Field Foundation (USATFF) outlined the state of professional track in the USA.  From this study we learned that “approximately 50% of our athletes who rank in the top 10 in the USA in their event make less than $15,000 annually from the sport (sponsorship, grants, prize money, etc.)”    For reference, the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for a 40 work week, times 50 weeks per year = $14,500.

There are no easy answers. The sport of track and field has been in decline for over twenty years, and is controlled by an international organization – the IAAF – which lies outside the laws of any nation.  Remember when former 400-meter world record holder Butch Reynolds sued the IAAF for libel in U.S. courts after being banned from the 1992 Olympics for what was shown to be at least a questionable drug test?  Though Reynolds was awarded $27.3 million in damages, the IAAF stated that the ruling, since it had been made in Ohio, had no bearing on its organization and was therefore invalid.  What’s more, since the fathers of the organization overwhelmingly come from parts of the world where paternalism is the accepted norm, the athletes of most nations are easily controlled in tight formation.

There have been at least two previous attempts to challenge the current system, both of which made some initial headway, but then sank back into the tender mercies of servitude and cynicism.

First, the International Track Association (ITA) made a bold attempt to professionalize track in the 1970s. Their four-year saga began sprightly enough.  They signed dozens of athletes including 18 Olympic champions, and competed before combined crowds of half-million spectators over their 51 meet lifespan.  In 1975 I was among 20,000 fans filing into Nickerson Field on the Boston University campus when the ITA Tour came to town.  But eventually the ITA faltered when the heroes of the 1976 Montreal Olympics realized they could make more money illegally under-the-table on the “amateur” tour, than they could competing for open professional purses.  The expedience of cynicism won out.

Then in the early 1980s the newly-blossoming sport of road racing, then dominated by college-educated American, European, and Austral-Asian athletes, made an attempt to break free of the national governing body (NGB) model by creating its own Association of Road Race Athletes (ARA) tour of professional road races.  In the end, threatened by the loss of Olympic eligibility for the sport’s top stars, the athletes compromised their drive toward professionalism, and together with TAC (at the insistence of the IAAF) jerry-rigged an Orwellian solution called TACTRUST that allowed the runners to keep their winnings while maintaining their Olympic eligibility.

The pretzel logic of that solution was so twisted that it was not only a worthy counterpart to the Potemkin Village of Soviet-style amateurism (read state support of athletes), but it left the public in a state of utter confusion as to our sport’s standing along the amateur/professional continuum. Thus today one still hears the rancid old question: “How can you go to the Olympics if you earn money for racing?”

“Power goes to two poles — to those who’ve got the money and those who’ve got the people.”  – Saul Alinsky

17th century English philosopher John Locke, whose writings influenced America’s Founding Fathers, argued (in Chapter V of his Second Treatise) that the individual ownership of goods and property is justified by the labor exerted to produce those goods.  And while there is also labor utilized to develop athletes at the grassroots level, and then produce the stages upon which the labor of athletes can perform, without the athletes as lead actors, there would be no play to market to the public.

Thus, Locke provides the implication that the labor expended in the creation of goods gives them their value.  And that ownership of property is created by the application of that labor. In addition, he believed property precedes government and government cannot “dispose of the estates of the subjects arbitrarily.”

As I listened to last fall’s heated debate over the logos-on-uniforms issue, I heard again the echoes of previous paternalisms.

In 1978 American distance runner Bill Rodgers was riding the crest of the wave of road racing as it surged out over the land.  He was at the height of his appeal, having just won his second Boston Marathon after having graced the cover of Sports Illustrated the previous fall by securing his second NYC Marathon title.  He was also beginning to entertain business and speaking engagement offers.

Let me share with you a letter dated May 31, 1978 from Bill to then AAU executive director Ollan Cassell, with Ollan’s response following.

“Dear Ollan,

I am writing to ask your permission in regard to speaking engagements.  I am presuming that I can give clinics and talks which help promote the sport and help runners develop.

The area is vague in regard to payment of some kind.  As I have been doing this type of work for years now, I feel that I am qualified as a professional in this area. I would like to earn at least a portion of my livelihood in this manner, provided that it is in accordance with AAU rules…

Sincerely,

Bill Rodgers

 

25 July 1978

Dear Bill:

…Approval is granted for you to be involved in the type of activities explained above, with the understanding your photograph or athletic performances will not be used in any promotion of business activity you might be involved in…

Best regards,

Ollan Cassell

 

This, then, is the child-parent culture which has been handed down like a divine right of kings for over a century. Yet, it is also true that the sport of track and field, along with its ruddy-faced cousin, road racing, has bent to the better over the years.  It isn’t quite the same tyrannical world that it once was in Victorian times, as the federations have had to give back more and more as the athlete demands have chipped away at their arbitrary autocratic rule.

But when faced with even a more benevolent form of paternalism, I’m reminded of something Roger Baldwin, founder of the ACLU, once wrote: “Silence never won rights. They are not handed down from above; they are forced by pressures from below.”

Like explorers of old, we have been in search of the unifying center of the sport for a long time.  For decades the pre-Copernican theory held that the governing-body-as-center-of-the-universe was best.  Well, I give you the sport after a century of following that model.  You be the judge.

“Overwhelmingly, people cannot make a living in this sport,” concludes David Greifinger.

What is clear is that the governing body model has structural limits to its efficiencies, effectiveness, and ethics.  Therefore, not in opposition for opposition’s sake, but to fulfill whatever the potential of the sport may be (unless you think this is its peak) it must redound to the irreducible unit of the sport, the individual athletes, to form the core around which their own best interests revolve.   And it has to begin with the American athlete, because for the sport to grow, that’s who we need to develop for the public to get behind.

So are today’s track athletes willing to summon their cohort to reach critical mass, make a pact, and finally cross over to join the other sports which have segmented their needs into appropriate organizational models of interest, but which then work hand-in-hand with their federations for the betterment of their sports at large?  Or are they to endlessly go around in circles waiting for others to tell them when and how and to whose benefit?

photo credit:   Phil Roeder

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