WHEN THE SHOE DOESN’T FIT ANYMORE

I was in Tampa last weekend to help announce the Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic as the old-line road race was reintroducing prize money after an absence of 17-years. After the race I drove north to visit old friends in Gainesville where I’d spent 10 winters in the 1990s. And what happened while I was away?  The track world falls apart in Albuquerque, New Mexico at the U.S. Indoor Nationals.

I tell you, I’ve been trying my best to embrace USATF as a changing, responsive national governing body, what with Max Siegel taking over in an appreciably quiet, yet focused way as CEO.  And though there were momentary echoes of some benighted AAU or TAC ghost hovering near the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials selection process that chose L.A. over Houston, a closer inspection revealed both sides on firm ground with no hidden agendas, and a fair argument to bolster its case.  Just sad one of the cities had to lose.  And with combined trials, the sport loses inventory, too, as there is one less national exposure available.

Brooks athlete Gabby Grunewald passes Nike Athlete Jordan Hasay in women's 3000.

Brooks athlete Gabby Grunewald about to pass Nike Athlete Jordan Hasay in women’s 3000.

But now again at the indoor nationals in Albuquerque we see yet another shit storm erupt in the controversy surrounding the no, no,yes, no again disqualification of Gabby Grunewald in the women’s 3000 meters.  Certainly, given the evidence available to anyone who watched that race, or has ever spent any time racing or watching indoor meets over the years, while there was minor contact, (in my opinion) there was nothing suggesting disqualification.  Indoor track has long been a contact sport as bodies fatigue, wits wither, and space narrows. Yet due to the current organizational structure and sponsorship arrangements of USATF, once again we saw the fuse of unrest only needing a minor spark to ignite a major controversy.

In 1952 President Dwight Eisenhower nominated General Motors CEO Charles Wilson as Secretary of Defense. The selection shocked Washington, because at the time GM was at the peak of its influence as one of the largest employers in the nation, and a principal supplier to the Defense Department.  When questioned at a closed Congressional hearing about his large GM holdings, and the potential conflict of interest those holdings might represent if he was confirmed as SECDEF, Wilson dismissed the charge.  “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country”, he was famously quoted as having said.

Well, it is that same perception of undue influence that sparked the fury in Albuquerque.  With Nike signed up as USATF’s primary sponsor (and according to the WSJ, that sponsorship represented 45% of USATF revenue in 2012), the perception of impropriety and the potential for conflict of interest is constant and enduring.  Whether it is true or not is inconsequential.  The assumption, that Nike’s clout was enough to pressure the NGB into re-opening the appeals process in the women’s 3000 after the initial rulings had gone against them, rests at the heart of the matter.

The perception of favoritism alone is enough to suggest that signing an endemic sponsor is eventually counterproductive as it opens the door for exactly this kind of charge.  In the end it isn’t worth it, even to the endemic sponsor, which has to carry that “favored” brand whether earned or not.  At the same time by taking the easy inside path to sponsorship USATF speaks to the inherent weakness of our sport in attracting outside support. Think this would have happened in the days when Mobil Oil was the primary sponsor for TAC?

Alberto Salazar

Alberto Salazar

Alberto Salazar has been a friend for over 30 years going back to our days in Boston.  His fiery defense of and appeal for his athletes in Albuquerque is a reflection of the passions he unleashed on his opponents, and ultimately himself, during the glory years of his injury-shortened racing career. That zeal was a big part of what made Al a champion and now a successful coach. And nobody with a fair mind would want to diminish that passion. However, they might like to see it tempered somewhat, if only for his own well-being, especially when it boils over, as it reportedly did in the call room/protest desk area during a near altercation with fellow Nike coach Jerry Schumacher, and following the men’s 3000 when he upbraided one of Schumachers athletes, Lopez Lomong.  In some ways I wish everyone cared as much as Al, who is like an old-school fight trainer, fully engaged and fiercely partisan.  In fact, that’s a big part of the problem, no unanimity of purpose. On the other hand, we need clear boundaries to to maintain decorum and a respectful environment.

But getting back to the perception of impropriety and favoritism. Based on the extra, third appeal that finally found in favor of Alberto’s athlete Jordan Hasay — after the initial protest and subsequent appeal had been denied  — ask yourself if the roles had been reversed and Coach Dennis Barker of Team USA Minnesota would have wanted another bite of the appeal apple after his initial protest and appeal had been turned down, would that appeal have been forthcoming?  Not likely, is my guess.

OLD WORLD NEW NEEDS

I hosted a panel discussion in Marina Del Rey in January for Triathlon Business International, an industry organization dedicated to promoting the sport and the business of triathlon.  Our topic was, “What Can Triathlon Learn from Running?”  My initial answer was, “What not to do!?”

But joking aside, let’s look at some numbers.

With 1.9 million competing participants, USA Triathlon has 140,000 annual members and 550,000 one-day pass members.  With a racing base of 15.5 million road racers, USA Track & Field has an annual membership of 115,000, 67% of which come from their youth program!

Notwithstanding the breakup of the AAU by the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, USATF remains a 19th century type organization trying to govern in a 21st century sporting world. Though it has a professional staff, the vast majority of the organization is volunteer-based. And it shows!  Its constituency spans cradle-to-grave all things running, jumping, and throwing, well beyond the scope of any single organization to properly govern, administer, much less promote and market with a budget of $23 million a year.  By comparison, the University of Florida athletic department has a $100 million budget.

The NCAA Final Four and Super Bowl game officials are selected based on year-round performance.  At a PGA Tour golf event all rulings are made by professionals from the Tour office.  Yet at the U.S. Indoors, well-intentioned, well-meaning, nice USATF volunteer officials seemed to be making it up as they went along, either intimidated or overwhelmed by the impassioned advocacy swirling around them.  Only after CEO Max Siegel stepped in after the fact did it all come out right with Grunewald getting reinstated as national champion.  But, Lord, what hashtag was made of it.

Try and try and try as it may to conform to the best practices of the modern era, when will it finally dawn on this sport – or maybe even Congress — that these old ways should be consigned to those old times?  There are non-overlapping magisteria involved.  Having volunteer officials and majority endemic sponsorship are two more penny-wise, pound-foolish vestiges of an old and tired system that has too many oppositional constituencies to ever function reliably, and so can’t keep from hobbling the very things it is tasked to advance.  In fact, it’s a massive frustration at all points on the compass, including for USATF itself. That’s how diabolically devious the NGB design has proven to be since inception.  On one side you want to cradle it. On the other you want to strangle it.  But that said, (deep breath) the experiment continues, and hopefully all parties will have learned and grown from the experience.

END

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22 comments on “WHEN THE SHOE DOESN’T FIT ANYMORE

  1. kevmo says:

    ….confronting Lopez Lomong? Yikes, have you seen his physique? Not a chance.

  2. kevmo says:

    seriously, no matter who’s right or wrong, track & field seems to have this annual ritual of doing whatever it takes to be perceived as a second-class sport (remember Felix v Tarmoh?), a soap-opera of indecision and insider trading, revealing what seems to me a lack of organizational leadership. Hope this is a wake-up call to everyone that if you want to be professional you have to act professional.

    • robert says:

      Kevmo, It’s not really an annual ritual, but a continuous, ongoing problem that’s been rearing it’s ugly head for years.

  3. Thoughtful as always.
    Thank you Toni.

  4. robert says:

    Only one solution here. Disband USATF and let the USOC run things until a suitable, credible leader can be found. He/she MUST have the background and ability to bring in major new sponsorships. Now, potential sponsors just laugh when the current group of incompetents comes calling. Nothing of substance since Craig Masback left the scene.

    • Greg M says:

      I’m certainly no fan of USATF, but your proposal seems a little extreme. However bad USATF is, it does provide some structure, but your proposal would leave the sport in chaos for a couple of years until a successor could get up and running, and who’s to say they would be any better??

  5. MJB says:

    Sadly, Alberto Salazar, the hero of our running generation (55+) has fallen off the perch of nobility we all had him on, to the nadir of ignobility! Ranting and screaming at Lopez Lomong, an athlete who is the living embodiment of the Olympic ideal. Lopez embraces the balance that our sport needs…a disciplined furiously competitive athlete, and an always good-natured tempered soul. A few decades ago, I witnessed another American distance great, Gerry Lindgren display a character flaw. I was shocked. My college coach, the very dignified Ralph Vernacchia, said, “never put a man on a pedestal, you will forever be disappointed. How prescient Ralph’s words were. How sad that our sport has witnessed another fall from grace of a great one.
    A couple of years ago, I gave a copy of Alberto’s book to fifteen of the graduating seniors on my track and field team. I now have to tell them what Ralph Vernacchia told me wisely oh so many years ago.

  6. Santa says:

    anybody familiar with the Statement of Economic Interest in the State of CA? it is a major pain in the butt if you have to…, but looking at the USATF and Nike, it makes sense… speaking of sense, how about a common sense? :-)

    ps: “big al” once (or more) told me about the abuse of PED’s by the “AlSal”… just wonder… about it all..

  7. Michael Edelstein says:

    While not an obvious DQ level foul, had I been the official, I would never have been as clear but as you are in saying, “Certainly, given the evidence available to anyone who watched that race, or has ever spent any time racing or watching indoor meets over the years, there was nothing vaguely suggestive of a foul, much less cause for disqualification.” Yes, I have run and raced and watched indoors. Yes, I have rewound and watched the video more times than the issue deserves. Yes, I have seen worse not be DQ’d. That was an argument my middle school students used to use when they had done something clearly not great. But when you hit a car from behind, you are at fault. When you cut through a runner’s legs from behind, they are defenseless. This one was a judgment call, yes, but not as certainly and nothing vaguely and all that rather polar judging you are doing. Of Salazar and more, I agree. Of the potential DQ? I am not so sure, and a bit ashamed that you are. It might have been inadvertent, but it might have been passionate bullying of a physical sort akin to Salazar’s over the top verbal banter (and more) of late.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Completely agree with Michael’s post. I would argue that the main thrust of nearly all the coverage has been to, and with some justification, criticize the actions of Salazar and USATF. Much of the criticism seems overly emotional, antagonistic and a long awaited cathartic chance to “give it to Alberto and Nike, those evils villains.” However, all that misses the point. There was a race, an official raised a flag suggesting that a foul may have occurred and whether the actions of GG, who with a clear path, did clip and to some degree impede JH should have amounted to a DQ is not absolutely clear. To argue otherwise seems to me to ignore both the evidence from the race and the reaction of many thoughtful people who aren’t getting caught up in the tabloid feeding frenzy (e.g., see letsrun.com) and pretending as if there wasn’t contact.

    • John says:

      I don’t think anyone is pretending that there wasn’t contact. While I believe that there should not have been a DQ and I don’t even think it is that close. These are not cars and the same rules do not apply. Runners shift back and forth. Cars stay in lanes. Apples and oranges! JH was moving out to in and back. GG was inside her but trying to get around a rapidly fading JH. There was contact made and that did not change the outcome of the race. JH was not going to catch SR and certainly not GG.
      With all of that being said, the main issue was that USATF did not follow their own rules.
      I doubt you can call what is happening on letsrun as a feeding frenzy. I look at it is concern over a huge issue in USA Track and Field. That issue is transparency. If you do not recognize has severe this issue is then you have not been paying attention. There is most definitely a problem and the people at letsrun along with many athletes, fans and myself all want USATF to come clean and/or be disbanded.

      • Tony says:

        You don’t think a DQ was even close, others can reasonably disagree. I would question why a runner with a clear path would, on multiple occasions, cut inside of the runner in front of them. And I don’t buy the JH was weaving line of argument, as the supposed “weaving” is being greatly exaggerated – watch the video, I just did, JH did NOT doing anything out of the ordinary. But GG chose to get right into her. She then proceeds to do essentially the same thing to SR. Interestly enough the words of the announcer says basically the same thing in terms of GG getting right on top of both JH & SR. He must be paid off by Nike or a personal confidant of Salazar, right?

        And, you seriously believe that LRC coverage has not been a feeding frenzy? Everything on their homepage was from GG’s perspective (from GG, her coach and agent) and while Salazar & USATF deserved criticism, the amount of gratuitous Salazar & Nike bashing was ridiculous. Just a few examples of the one-sidedness, the still shots they provided (or rather Doyle provided) with a 6.6 gap between them that was used to justify the “no foul” assertion, pretending that GG’s husband was a reliable witness, not reporting, in an article attacking Salazar’s behavior, that GG’s husband did what could be described minimally as attempt to verbally intimidate and perhaps even physically intimidate Salazar, not including coverage of Salazar’s son claiming that GG’s husband initiated the confrontation in the elevator, and the list goes on. Any reasonable person can see LRC has an ax to grind with Nike and Salazar and they are entitled to pursue that line of attach, just don’t pretend it’s otherwise.

  9. Eric Quick says:

    Whether it was a foul worthy of DQ or not, Jordan Hasay’s stride certainly changed when she was touched from behind. There was no one else near them and it looked to me like Gabe had plenty of space to move around her without making contact. Gabe also touched Shannon Rowbury’s foot from behind as she passed her a few seconds later. Shannon’s stride was not as noticeably changed, but she was touched and the track looked clear all around them.

    Interestingly, I had a very good television view of the race to see and make my judgements. I was not on the track to have Gabe’s viewpoint and I have never run quite as fast as any of them (I did come close to breaking 10 minutes for 2 miles quite a number of years ago). I did get clipped like this once in the Get In Gear 10K and I went down hard in the first mile and ran the rest bloody. The person that clipped me never looked back, so I do not know if they knew they took me down or not.

    Maybe contact happens frequently in indoor and outdoor track and this type of minor contact is not something to be disqualified for. I don’t remember anyone being disqualified when Morgan Uceny went down due to some race contact.

    I will be reading the rules for contact so that I am better educated when watching races.

    • Greg M says:

      No one is disputing there was contact between Grundewald and Hasay, but I believe the standard used by the rule is “obstructed” (I believe that is the word used in the rule book). Anyway, the rule is written quite vaguely. Mind you, we’re talking about the USATF rule book here; there are separate rule books for the NCAA, IAAF, each state’s high school organization, etc. and there can be great variation between all of these.

      • Toni Reavis says:

        Greg,

        Therein lies the problem, endless unconnected fiefdoms that restrict the sport from ever getting its arms around enough of the raw material to form anything out of it. It’s an amalgam of disunity, and happy in its separateness. But the professional wing of the sport suffers by its inclusion. You guys were on the right path with ARRA back in 1982, but you let it get away, and things reverted to the old ways. I fear we will be lamenting this circumstance till they finally close the earth atop us.

      • Tony says:

        Rule 163 does include OBSTRUCTION, any athlete who jostles or obstructs another athlete, so as to impede his progress, shall be liable to disqualification from that event.

        Amazing that in all the coverage of this controversy I don’t recall EVER seeing reference to the actual rules. Yet that hasn’t stopped anyone from proclaiming without reservation their certainty that a DQ was not warranted. Perhaps so, but it seemed that the basis for most folks judgement was akin to most people’s perspective on art – they don’t know much about it but can tell “good” art when they see it. To my understanding art doesn’t have a rule book, and one’s judgement in that arena is a matter of taste. T&F does have a rule book. To ignore it when trying to make a judgment is irresponsible. Must say that I do appreciate Toni’s perspectives but it really is quite extraordinary that he makes no reference to the actual relevant rule regarding this incident. Only claiming that to those in know “there was nothing suggesting disqualification.” The announcer on NBCSN didn’t share that sentiment, Jesse Squires at the Daily Relay details the events but seemingly chose not to reach a judgment about whether a DQ was warranted – both individuals who have witnessed a LOT of T&F. So I think Toni would be better off saying he believes that his interpretation of the rule is supported, rather than dismissing out of hand a DQ possibly being warranted.

        Given all the hysteria related to this incident, I don’t think this is an insignificant point.

  10. islandrnr says:

    Love Toni Reavis always excellent take on everything running. This piece is no different! Toni if you see this please write about the current awful trend (in my opinion) of the Disneyfication of running. If I see one more grown person in a tiara and a tutu at one of Disneys princess themed races I might have to click my heels together and ask Fred Lebow to return on a freakin broom. Now the latest from the magic kingdom is a super hero themed event? I am certain that 10,000 people will show up dressed as aquaman and spidey and it seriously pains me. Is this really the new running? Argghhhh

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you, Toni, for writing the first and (so far as I’ve seen) only intelligent comments about the events in Albuquerque.

  12. […] When the Shoe Doesn’t Fit Anymore – tonireavis.com […]

  13. Jason Mayeroff says:

    Toni, this is the most objective and articulate analysis of the “Incidents in Albuquerque” that I have seen. I tip my hat to you.

  14. […] -Toni Reavis weighs in on the USATF’s handling of the Gabe Grunewald disqualification. […]

  15. concerned says:

    This whole thing still bugs me. After watching today finals from Poland, it made me ask how have we fallen as a sport think about the US indoor embarrassment. It has nothing to do with a questionable filed protest and has little to do with an excited coach yelling at people.
    What we have is a total lack of accountability from a sponsor overstepping its reach a group of officials that were swayed in some form or another to change their twice confirmed ruling , a governing organization that totally side stepped the issue and finally a apathetic group of athletes.
    Sponsor – If Nike played its card to overturn the protest , they have overstepped their boundaries as a sponsor in attempting influence the outcome of a competition.
    Officials – They allowed themselves to be unduly swayed. If they did this under pressure or threat they then can be seen as corruptible to outside influence and come into question of how many times this has happened before. This type of corruptible practice brings into question the entire officiating organization and its standards. Guess they don’t care how they look to the public or athletes.
    Governing Body- Stick your head in the sand approach that now become a tactic or strategy when something questionable comes to the surface. With no way to hold anybody in the private brotherhood organization accountable the practice will continue.
    Athletes – I guess they don’t realize that with an overreaching sponsor, corruptible officials with swaying standards and a non athlete supportive governing body that at any competition at any point in time their outcome of can be influenced with undue pressure. Holding hands walking off the track is a nice photo op , how about sitting down on the track in protest and stopping the meet until somebody from the governing body steps forth and explains what happened.
    What to do ? If someone used the Nike card that individual should be suspended from attending a USATF events for one year. The officials that overturned the ruling should be suspended from being able to make any sort of rulings going forward and participating in any officiating that could influence the outcome of a competition.
    If a USTAF executive made a request to overturn the ruling they should be fired on the spot.
    Sorry for the ramble , I feel better now.

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