When I came to Houston last weekend for the USATF Annual Meeting, I came with a specific purpose. To work within the system we have, with the people we have, to influence change.
I had nine goals for the meeting. That was a lot of things. All of these things involved conflict, negotiation, putting myself in awkward or difficult positions, being vulnerable, and struggling to represent myself accurately to people who may have preconceptions that are not true, as well as doing my best to set aside my own assumptions to give people a chance. Overall, when I look past my exhaustion, I am encouraged by the results of the weekend. Significant progress was made on several of them, and I want to share the quick and dirty of what happened with those of you who are invested.
How the Nine Goals Went Down
1. Present a Resolution to Change IAAF logo rules to ensure that ALL athletes regardless of sponsor affiliation or event have room to grow and prosper in our sport without reliance on handouts, and open new pathways for diverse sponsor investment in our sport that will lead to a bigger pie overall.
Before the meeting I had presented the resolution on a conference call with the small handful of AAC event leaders and they had agreed to support it (YAY!), but it was important to me to present it to all the other athletes before it went any further on their behalf. It was received with enthusiasm overall, and it led to some great follow up conversations. The final step was to present it on Sunday for a floor vote at closing session, but they forgot (?) to open the floor to “new business” and I never got my chance before the meeting was closed. This final step was important in that it would formally ensure action on our behalf. Now it will be emailed directly from the AAC to Stephanie Hightower as a request. Prior to this annual meeting, I had zero confidence a simple request would be honored due to sponsor conflicts, no matter how much it would benefit the athletes, but now I am feeling more optimistic that the board does want to support the collective, orderly desires of the athletes. My plan now is to request to attend the board meeting where it will be discussed and make a presentation to the board on the resolution.
2. Help get closure to what Nick Symmonds had to go through last year, by working to clarify the Statement of Conditions.
I had to miss the main discussion around this, unfortunately. But, Max Siegel left it in the athletes’ hands to figure out what they felt was fair, and the athletes came to some sort of agreement. Now the board has to approve it. Progress was made but to my knowledge, this issue is still formally unresolved.
3. Improve democratic processes for USATF by supporting proposed legislation
LL3 and LL14 were originally very contentious pieces of legislation that could have resulted in a big blow out and major drama akin to last year. These were designed to give more power to the voting delegates and check the power of the board that many feel has been abused in recent years. The narrative of the board’s behavior was one of a commitment to progress and fear of things and people getting in the way of positive momentum, so they wanted to fight it. All in all, there is still distrust on both sides that needs to get worked through. But something pretty cool happened. They worked together and came up with a compromise that kept the peace and maybe even built some equity in the relationship.
4. Assess the new AAC leadership and overall strength of the athlete voice within USATF
I came to the first AAC (Athletes’ Advisory Committee) meeting with concerns. After many years with John Drummond leading the charge, we now had a new Chair, Dwight Phillips, and vice chair Jeff Porter. I didn’t know either of these men personally. Drummond’s leadership was marked by a lot of conflict, but nobody ever doubted his commitment to the athletes. With new leadership, I felt friction would be reduced, but my concern was that things may swing too far in the other direction, where our AAC leaders would be working on behalf of the board’s agenda, with the goal of getting all the athletes in line. “Cooperation” could become a code word for “compliance.” I wanted to see if our new leaders were able to work cooperatively with the board while still looking out for the interests of the athletes first and foremost. Over the course of three days, I felt the AAC leaders were finding their footing as engagement and communication increased. I was impressed with how they handled the taboo topic of doping, and while there is room to grow, it is clear that they really want to do a good job. We had record athlete attendance, and the people who showed up were at various stages of passion and trust. Overall people want a healthy sport and viable profession. If the leaders can communicate with the greater athlete body on a regular basis, create a culture of respectful engagement, and advocate in a professional manner on our behalf, we will have a very powerful and effective AAC.
5. Ensure that the proposed Revenue Sharing Plan is fair to athletes
My main concern with the proposed revenue sharing plan by USATF was that it would come with strings attached, and that nobody was showing the strings. The actual situation is that terms are still being worked out, and the AAC leaders get to play a big role in what those strings are. A discussion was had by athletes who attended the meeting, and it remains to be seen what will come of it. How Dwight and Jeff represent the athlete body in those negotiations will be a big test for them. So this issue is still unresolved.
6. Open the doors for communication with CEO Max Siegel, Stephanie Hightower, and Steve Miller so I don’t have to rely on rumor or reputation fed to me by others, and can provide more accurate information to the audience that cares about the issues in our sport.
I requested a meeting with Max Siegel, and when I arrived Steve Miller and Jackie Joyner-Kersee were also there. Considering I have been critical of their leadership in the past without talking to them first, there was some tension. After talking, I felt better about Max’s intentions for the sport, and his business background. I left feeling that he is a good person for the job but just like there are benefits to him coming from the outside, there are also going to be holes in his understanding of the nuance of our sport and the value of it’s depth of players. Like a CEO at any company, the full potential of his impact will be dependent on his team: the advisors he brings in to help him translate his vision and outside experience to the sport of track and field itself. Currently, in my opinion, not enough consideration is being paid to the role non-Nike athletes, national class athletes, and passionate brands can play in the health and growth of our sport, and I did my best to speak to that in a short period of time, but I would like another shot at it. The meeting ended with an open door for communication, which was positive. I also spoke very briefly and informally with Stephanie Hightower, and she was open to future communication as well. Both of those meetings were high stress for me, and a reminder that leaders are human.
7. Improve overall awareness among leadership about how USATF policies affect non-Nike athletes so all athletes may be better served by their governing body.
There is still work to be done here, but it is my hope that the discussion of the proposal for the IAAF uniform rule change will help expand the thinking, as well as executive representation at the meeting from other brands to help us see the full picture. Oiselle made the meeting a priority from the top down this year, and I believe it was valuable. If we could get more brands rallying athlete and business representatives, we would have opportunities to put our heads together.
8. Get a commitment out of USATF to take seriously instances of bullying and intimidation within our sport so we can expect a standard of professionalism that keeps us safe.
The issue was discussed at an Ethics session, but there was no satisfactory response given by the head council. Major kudos to Sally Bergesen for asking the tough questions at that meeting, and for exposing a problem to a group who is in a position to demand change. There is a lot of fear that is holding us back from advocating for progress.
9. Present the petition to the board addressing the honors USATF gives to athletes with doping records.
This didn’t happen yet. I am going to promote the petition through December to get more signatures and share it with the board at the end of the year. Please help me out by signing it and sharing it with your people. We have close to 1000 signatures and it would be great to double that.
That was a lot. Kudos to you if you made it this far. Thanks for reading, and caring. Seriously. I want to give a special thanks to Sally Bergesen for coming with me to the meeting, for making improvement of the sport part of her company ethos and personal mission, and for being such a supportive and brave ally when I really needed one. And thank you to everyone who provided helpful information or ideas, showed up and did your work, or rallied support. It’s easy to complain about things. It’s not easy to do something about it. Peeking over my tiredness there is a little bit of optimism. We shall see what comes of it.