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.
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 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 Schumacher‘s 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.