Some other time I can write my entire history of my relationship to sport governance, ranging from blind optimism, to wanting to be the future CEO of USATF, to nice informative sit downs with former CEO Craig Masback, to puzzlement, to outrage and disillusionment, to becoming informed, to becoming unafraid to be openly critical, and finally to registering to participate (partially) in my first USATF Annual Meeting this week.
But for now, I just want to provide a brief overview my main takeaways from this year’s meeting, and inform people of a few major things that went down. As I get more information, I may change my opinions on certain things, and I’m certainly open to that. This is just how things are sitting with the information available to me at the time, the things I witnessed, and the things I was informed about from reliable sources. I am not an expert on the matter, just a person who gives a shit, processing it along the way.
To open the USATF Annual Meeting, Stephanie Hightower, the President of USATF, made a speech that included references to how we need to end the divisiveness among us and work together. This is of course in reference to all the bad blood stirred up at indoor USA’s with Gabe Grunewald and Andrew Bumbalough’s botched DQ’s, the Alberto Salazar anger management thing that went un-punished, the TFAA being an annoyance, and then the 26 year NIke contract signed in secrecy with no communication with the AAC (athletes advisory committee). With each major USATF blunder of the past year, athletes and supporters of the sport have spoken up and shown their disapproval, and major press has covered it. Frankly it’s been a bit of a shit show, so I understand the desire to pull it together.
CEO Max Siegel made similar comments to “getting on board” back in June when he met with the athletes in the TFAA, although he openly discouraged us from speaking out to the media, saying it makes USATF look bad and therefore makes it harder to get sponsors for USATF. It seems to me that Max and Stephanie have taken a strategy of backdoor deals, terrible communication, demanding blind support, and encouraging athletes to help create (undeserved) good press to make their jobs easier in securing funding for a bloated, ineffective organization.
Now even though I think things have gotten off to a rough start, I haven’t made up my mind as to whether Max, Stephanie, or anyone else on the board really is capable of greatness, or a piece of doody. I’m open minded to their potential competency. I really am. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to call them on their shit. I have nothing to lose. I don’t have political aspirations. I’m not associated with any of their sponsors anymore. I don’t care if Max likes me. I just went to the meeting because I don’t think it’s fair to be a critic without participating in governance, and I care about this sport more than is healthy. So I went in the interest of casting my votes and reporting what I saw for those who couldn’t make it.
A couple observations. To have a voice you have to be there in person. You have to be what’s called an “international athlete” to vote, which is someone who has competed for Team USA at a Worlds or Olympics in the last 10 years or finished in the top half of the field at USA Champs in the past two years, if I remember correctly. You must also have the ability to take a week off work and training and travel to the meeting. Unless you get funded (which nobody on the Oiselle team qualified for after applying) you have to pay flight, hotel, and $250 for the privilege of being there. As one of my twitter followers said, it’s like the old American voting system “must be white male land owner…”
There are meetings going on in a zillion different rooms at the same time, so you have to pick what you will participate in. I picked AAC meeting from 9:30-12:30 and then elections 2:30-6:00. The AAC (athletes advisory committee) is THE way athletes past and present can have a voice from within the organization. We elect event leaders, and then those event leaders elect their Chair, secretary, treasurer, etc. Then all the “international athletes” together get to vote for the athlete representatives who will sit on the USATF Board of Directors with Max and Stephanie. We get three spots, and those people are supposed to represent our desires in board meetings. This year, Deena Kastor’s seat was available and we elected Curt Claussen to the board.
The athletes on the board have had a shaky relationship with the AAC recently. After being elected, instead of taking the AAC’s wishes to the board, on several occasions they’ve take Max’s wishes and try to convince the athletes on the AAC to change their minds to fall in line. I heard over and over again from athletes what a source of disappointment this has been. There are many reasons some of this behavior could be justified, including board members having more information that AAC people don’t have, etc. But I have also heard concerns expressed that Max and team are actively encouraging certain athletes to run for the board who they feel will be less “problematic” or who they suspect have ambitions to climb the ladder to secure a future career with the governing body, and therefore will be more likely to support their initiatives. My concern is that the promise of a job down the line makes it harder to stand in line with your fellow athletes who voted you there.
The vast majority of top athletes don’t have an alternate career cued up and ready to hit go, so this is a vulnerable time of life for a lot of people. A board seat is a huge opportunity, but with zero experience working in corporate politics, what are the chances an athlete member is going to stir up a fight in that intimidating environment? The AAC had absolutely NO IDEA a 26 year NIke deal was being discussed until the ink had already dried, despite the fact that three of their elected athletes were on the board. Because of this, there was no opportunity for athletes to influence it, discuss concerns, or cast a potential new vision for our future sponsor relationships that is better for athletes. I still mourn this loss for the next generation of athletes, but that’s another blog.
But the big kicker of this meeting came today. Stephanie Hightower, the one who preached about coming together in her opening speech, decided to run for IAAF council (our international governing body), to replace Bob Hersh as our candidate, who has been there 16 years. From what we can tell, Bob has done a great job, is well liked, and has moved his way up to VP so the USA has a very strong position in the IAAF. I’ve only had one personal experience with Bob and it was very positive. When I was forced to remove my Picky Bars tattoo before the NY Marathon to avoid disqualification, I emailed him to ask him about IAAF rules, to vent my displeasure, and to see what could be done to change things. He emailed me back within an hour, we were on the phone later that day, and he went back and did further research and called me back to discuss what he had found. He strategized with me what I could do to optimize my rights. I am not an Olympic medalist, or even an Olympian, and he was right there with me.
Regardless of whether he is a nice guy, or good at what he does, or what, the constituency voted between Bob and Stephanie, and Bob won by a landslide: 392 to 70. Then the Board of Directors overruled that decision 11-1, kicked Bob out, and gave the nomination to Stephanie. Those numbers, 11-1, means that a minimum of 2 of our 3 athlete reps on the board voted to overrule the overwhelming vote of their peers. Not to mention all the rest of the board members going against the people’s voice. This has left a lot of people pissed off, and I think rightfully so.
I don’t know enough about Stephanie Hightower to know if she would be good at the job or not, or better than Bob, etc. But I do know that at this meeting she was full of shit, so that’s not a good start. She completely disregarded the wishes of the people she is meant to represent. She did not lose honorably. She claims she wants to end divisiveness among us and then leads a huge political power move to get what she wants. How can we expect a person like that to represent us well at the IAAF? How can we trust the board? Is Bob Hersh a serial killer or something? I mean, what is really at stake here that’s worth tearing us apart?
I arrived at the meeting skeptical; day one of the meeting I felt semi-optimistic, and now I feel like so many others, like it’s all pointless. We can’t really affect change from within the organization. That’s why the TFAA was created. But it has such a long way to go to actually work, and I’m tired of putting logs on a fire that doesn’t consistently burn. One moment I want to change the world and the next moment I just want to look out for myself. And that is the challenge of the professional track and field athlete.