CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT

Separation anxiety

Separation anxiety

With the end of the Cold War reawakening centuries old ethnic animus, and modernity exerting economic pressure on limited resources, the reordering of the world continues along a rancorous course as globalization comes into opposition against national political interests.

Whether we see it expressed in separatist referenda in Catalonia, Venice and Scotland, or via the ongoing crisis in Crimea, nationalist movements are on the rise as peoples affiliated culturally and linguistically seek independence from the larger nations that contain them.

So, too, has reordering involved the realm of sport. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 broke up the old Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) while providing national governing bodies for each Olympic sport individually.  In that restructuring, track and field, race walking and long distance running were lumped together under the same umbrella called The Athletics Congress (TAC), today known as USA Track & Field (USATF).

But just as nations undergo constant shifts in populations and affiliations, so has the relative scope of USATF’s component parts undergone fundamental change in the last three-plus decades.  Over that time road racing’s mature numbers have grown to dwarf those of track and race walking, such that road racing has become to track & field what black South Africa had traditionally been to white South Africa during the days of apartheid, a population majority holding a minority political base.

Days of yore

Days of yore

Part of this imbalance stems from the fact that road running was in its infancy when the AAU was broken up.  But today, over 30 million Americans are self-professed runners, 15.5 million of whom actively participate in road racing, more than a half-million in marathons alone. Yet, as of December 2013, USATF had a membership of 115,000, 67% of which came from its youth division.  What’s more, marathons in Boston, New York, and Columbus, Ohio, which once required USATF membership to gain entry,  have long since done away with that requirement, seeing no reciprocal benefit for the necessity. Thus, the questions which culminated in South Africa’s first free elections in 1993 that brought Nelson Mandela to the presidency have, over the years, found their way into the circles of road racing, to wit: should road racing remain under the umbrella of USATF in its minority position, or should it attempt to strike out on its own to form an autonomous union with members of its own ranks, and in so doing allow USATF the freedom to better serve its more historically aligned constituencies?

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sunni-vs-shiaEvidence that peaceful coexistence almost never works in societies that are highly divided along religious, linguistic and cultural fault lines is overwhelming. Besides Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, examples of multi-national countries that have failed are numerous: Cyprus, Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Sudan to name a few more. In a similar sense, post-collegiate track & field itself is little more than an amalgam of disciplines sharing a venue.  Unlike high school and collegiate track, there is no team scoring, and no event inter-connectivity. The cultures of sprints, jumps, throws, walking, middle and long-distance all align with their own distinct communities, and that’s before road, mountain, trail and ultra running  enter the USATF scrum.  And even that doesn’t begin to consider the gulf that exists between the professional and amateur sides of the sport, or the distinctions that separate the youth, open, and masters constituencies from one another.

Like any agency with too thin a budget and too broad a portfolio, USA Track & Field has become a prisoner of its own constitution.  Not that there haven’t been differences in leadership, but irrespective of who has sat as head of the organization USATF has been unable to extract itself from the knot of futility and frustration defined by its own internal inconsistencies. Without a common goal to bind its component parts, each discipline finds itself competing for limited resources, constraining the growth of any in the process. Consider if Little League Baseball, Slow Pitch Softball, Wiffle Ball and Major League Baseball all came under the same organizational umbrella, with MLB having no standing, more or less, than any other component.  What odds of success would you offer that arrangement?

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“Where the multi-ethnic federation has utterly collapsed, it may be better to create two or more new, relatively homogenous nation states than to try to piece the wreckage together with ingenious, but unworkable, power-sharing schemes.” (Pg. 98, Foreign Affairs, May/June 1994 “In Defense of Liberal Nationalism”) USATF

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Congress adopted the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 in response to long-standing criticisms of the AAU for its paternalistic policies toward women, and, ironically, for banning runners who competed against others with shoe-company sponsorships. Today, the need for fundamental change, for pruning, isn’t suggested due to bad faith or wrong doing as such.   Instead it is to relieve the pressure exerted by too many competing constituencies, each with its own goals, needs, and fierce advocates. With no clear center of mass, there is always going to be a curve ball coming.   The disqualification controversies in the men’s and women’s 3000-meters at the 2014 U.S. Indoor Nationals are only the latest examples.   In 2012 it was the Allyson Felix – Jeneba Tarmoh dead-heat in the Olympic Trials 100-meter final. In 2011 it was athletes and officials clashing over logo restrictions at the USATF annual meeting in St. Louis. And so it goes, leading others in the industry to call for a separation between the professional wing of track & field and the amateur – notably Garry Hill, Editor of Track & Field News

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At last December’s USATF annual meeting in Indianapolis, “the whiff that all was not quite so rosy in the minds of the rank and file within the organization began to permeate the assembly hall,” reported Phil Stewart in his Road Race Management newsletter. “The conflict…was over (USATF CEO Max) Siegel’s (and the Board’s) power to make key marketing and promotional decisions and their accountability to the constituent groups within the organization.” The issue last December was the rewarding of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which eventually went to Los Angeles over 2012 host Houston.

But the problem for which there is no solution is “the conflict over Siegel’s (and the Board’s) power to make key marketing and promotional decisions and their accountability to the constituent groups within the organization”. The constituent groups of USATF are not, nor were they designed to be, a smoothly running, integrated business model. The 1978 Amateur Sports Act was designed for “amateur” sports even as today’s problems and limitations exist on the professional side which has no specific representation. Pro Sports

While other professional sports are conducted in conjunction with their  athletes (and representatives) who then work hand-in-glove with their NGBs at national championships and international competitions, including the Olympics, it is because track & field and road racing are not only governed but marketed by an NGB alone that we see a once well-recognized sport no longer hold that elevated position.

With so many internally inconsistent disciplines organized under one banner, each restricted by the presence of the others, a Gordian knot of irreconcilability has only tightened over the years. For all aspects of this multi-national sport to flourish, a more focused, individual approach to governance and marketing is required. In the United Kingdom Run Britain administers road running as an autonomous wing of UK Athletics.

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TFAAThe recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern University football players are “employees” of the university, and therefore can unionize to negotiate the terms of their employment, has thrown a potential wrench into the entire NCAA “amateur” sports mechanism.  It has also given a welcome boost to fledgling athlete unions like the Track & Field Athletes Association (TFAA) and Professional Athletes Association of Kenya (PAAK).   The growth of these unions has been necessitated by the continuing denial of athlete representation in the halls of power, and the concurrent  descent of track & field and road racing as viable professional sporting entertainments over the last thirty years — even as the second running boom continues to draw new participants to the activity of running worldwide.

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The way sports in America are consumed has changed. Constituencies change. Yes, American track & field still wins more Olympic medals than any other nation, but look where the sport is in relation to other sports! “There I was, (annual IEG Sponsorship Conference) in a room full of sports executives, marketers, sponsorship agency professionals, event producers, non-profits and corporate sponsors, and not a single person knew that professional track & field exists in America,” writes George Perry on the Austin Track Club blog

USATF is now 36 years old and under its fourth administrative head. That is more than a fair sample of years and leadership styles to have tested the viability of the organization’s original charter.   What has become abundantly clear is that this one-size-fits-all organizational model, while well intentioned, is over-burdened, under-funded, and simply a vestigial relic of a time now passed.  In the final analysis, like its predecessor the AAU, USATF has proven to be an unsuccessful model in dealing with the varied requirements of sport in the second decade of the 21st century, and thus needs to be restructured in order to better address the challenges that face it.

END

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13 comments on “CUTTING THE GORDIAN KNOT

  1. Troy says:

    Toni,
    I had planned a meet for Austin, TX to be held April 2013. Had a major sponsor and had reached out to Vegas to generate attention by betting. In speaking with the head of Nevada’s Gaming Commission, he told me it wouldn’t work because track was not a professional sport. That was a sad commentary for t&f.
    (btw The meet never happened when the sponsor pulled out in Nov. 2012.)

  2. Greg M says:

    Hi Toni,
    Interesting analogies and great analysis, as always. However, I have to quibble a bit. It’s true that USATF is 36 years old and on its 4th CEO, but the first 9 of those years were under the imperial, corrupt, clueless, indifferent, and neolithic Ollan Cassell (who was the head of the TAC and AAU before it), who never showed any interest or aptitude in promoting the sport; he was only interested in maintaining his position and power. And his reign occurred at exactly the same time that the US saw tremendous growth in the NBA, NHL, and NASCAR. So it could be argued that Cassell failed at exactly the most opportune time for the sport and the sport has been forced to play catch-up (from an enormous deficit) ever since. Your thoughts?

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Greg,
      Ollan ruled the roost at the AAU and TAC until his contract was not renewed and Craig Masback was hired as USATF CEO in 1997. But I agree that the baseline political environment that Ollan established and maintained in those formative years — Us vs. Them, Pro vs. Amateur — is what has been chiefly responsible for the dysfunction which has come to define and poison the organization ever since.

      That’s why I’ve concluded that it doesn’t matter who gets hired to fill its executive positions, there are too many competing constituencies for anyone to juggle effectively much less efficiently. USATF is a self-consuming organization. In the end, it isn’t THEM, it’s IT. And it needs to be torn down and rebuilt even as a professional association is constructed to fill the requirements of that wing of the sport.

      T

      • Greg M says:

        Yes, I think you’re right. That “big tent” structure probably benefited him personally, as did playing all of those competing interests against each other.

  3. […] Reavis makes a very strong case that USATF simply needs to be reshuffled so varying interests aren’t constrained per being under […]

  4. Claudia Piepenburg says:

    Toni: My first USATF convention was in Louisville (I believe that’s the right city) where members voted to change the name to United States of America Track & Field from TAC (The Athletics Congress) Coming from a strictly road racing/running background I remember (naively) asking a few people who shall remain nameless because they’re still around, what sense it made for road racing to be governed by a NGO whose name didn’t refer to the sport in any fashion. They responded by rolling their eyes (I’m surprised that they didn’t pat me on the head and say: “go away little girl and stop talking so silly”) and then essentially ignored my query. I knew at that moment what the fictional little boy who said that the emperor was wearing no clothes must have felt like.

    Perhaps when Running USA was founded over a decade ago, road running/racing could have made the break from USATF, and re-grouped as a new NGO. But sadly that opportunity was squandered somewhere along the line.

    Everything you say has merit and I agree with you wholeheartedly, but even now when I bring up the concept of our sport breaking off and forming its own NGO, I’m met with incredulous skepticism, even from folks who are savvy, enterprising and have been around for a long time. Change is scary, but change is also freeing and enlightening, and usually change is for the good.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Claudia,
      Only those who have been around for as long as we have see how little things have changed over the years. Irresolution is built into the DNA of USATF. At some point road running has to stand up in order to reach its full height. RUSA is the obvious organization to take the sport forward, what with USATF having a hard enough time keeping track & field in order. But until they see that goal as worthy and attainable, they will continue exploring the depths of individual event management like a retiree sweeping the beach with his metal-detector.

  5. Sam says:

    I am not sure how Running USA started, but it appears to be an organization aimed at race directors. There were development teams for a bit but that appears to have dwindled despite the success of Meb and Deena. The TeamRunning in Mammoth changed its name even.

    So, is the idea to break off road running from USATF? It could be done if the USOC and the IOC recognized this new NGB as taking care of marathon (and what of race walking does it stay or come along?) selection procedures. Biathlon is not part of US Ski and Snowboard (although I bet most people think it is and I have no idea why it is not) so it could serve as a model for such a break. But I suspect that the break would also have to be done internationally with road racing breaking away from the IAAF. At one point, USA Cycling was spinning off BMX and then BMX was added to the Olympics and so it never left. (There was talk of skate boarding being added and put under the UCI and USA Cycling–the USAC folks wanted none of that, I was at the organization at the time.

    Would trail races and ultras be in this “off track” racing entity? Cycling has road, track, mountain biking, cyclocross (non-Olympic) and BMX and each has its own culture (although there is cross over between some disciplines).

    It is an interesting idea and certainly would give USATF more of a focus.

    It would be interesting for Toni to interview someone from the USOC about what it would take although I doubt anyone would go on the record. No one there wants to back stab a NGB, but you know: what would USATF do? The USOC provides a chunk of money.

  6. […] received numerous responses to my last blog post — UNTYING THE USATF GORDIAN KNOT — about the current state of the sport, its governance, and the future of the fledgling […]

  7. […] Toni Reavis Argues That USATF’s Scope Is Too Broad And The Organization Should Be Broken Up Into S…“Consider if Little League Baseball, Slow Pitch Softball, Wiffle Ball and Major League Baseball all came under the same organizational umbrella, with MLB having no standing, more or less, than any other component.  What odds of success would you offer that arrangement?” […]

  8. […] governing body for track and field, road running and cross country in your neighbour to the north. I have been reading your latest blog posts with much interest. I have to say I agree with a lot of what you’ve […]

  9. Wow. Intriguing point of view. I enjoyed
    how you protected this issue…. A few issues I dont trust
    but hey… thats a new outlook. I am super keen
    to examine your next post. Can you make the next
    one more in depth? Thanks :)

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