USATF and the notion of homework


For years, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Track & Field were the two reliable punching bags in the American Olympic scene. The problem at both was much the same: constant management turnover and an unwieldy governance structure, each encumbered by a board of directors numbering in the triple digits that created an environment rife with petty politics. Over the past several years, both have turned it around. But with USATF in particular, there remains a dissident cohort for whom seemingly nothing seems to be good enough. Case in point: there’s a new, professionally produced commercial featuring several track-and-field stars, and it’s even airing on network television. This has to be a huge win, right? Exposure for a sport that needs it? For some, apparently not.

Chief executive Max Siegel took over USATF on May 1, 2012. In 2013 and 2014, the federation announced nine new sponsorship deals, including seven just last year. The big one, of course — a 23-year deal with Nike approaching $500 million.

At the 2014 annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in December, USATF delegates were shown the organization’s rise in revenue from $19 million to $34 million; its jump in net assets from $3 million to $17 million; its commitment to spend an additional $9 million on athlete programs between the years 2015 and 2020.

Moreover, and this diversity statistic jumps out from among the U.S. Olympic federations, which can hardly claim anything like it — two-thirds of the USATF board is African-American.

And now a national television commercial?

Leo Manzano at the 2014 USATF championships // photo Getty Images

Apparently not good enough for some, and in particular Lauren Fleshman, the two-time (2006, 2010) U.S. 5,000-meter champion, who has emerged in recent months as a vocal critic of USATF policies.

The TV spot, entitled, ”You’re Welcome,” features action shots of U.S. stars past and present laced with some of the biggest names from today talking; it ran last weekend on NBC.

On the one hand, Ms. Fleshman called the commercial “awesome.” On the other, she complains that the video contains a “massive disparity” in the way it treats “Nike vs. non-Nike athletes,” asserting this is a “problem that goes far beyond this one video, and will keep expensive initiatives like this one from making a real impact on the lives of athletes going forward.”

Her apparent primary complaint: that USATF cropped the logos of non Nike-sponsored athletes in the commercial.

“USATF has their salaries guaranteed for the next 23 years,” she proclaims at the end of her blog. “We don’t. And if USATF is entering into sponsorship contracts that demand they shrink us, silence us, prevent us from thriving, and stifle competition in the marketplace, that isn’t right. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s illegal.”

Let’s start here: no one at USATF has brought up as a hammer the First Amendment, the Commerce Clause to the Constitution or, for that matter, the notion of monopoly.

Indeed, one of the deals USATF announced in December at that meeting was with shoemaker Hoka One One, to sponsor a middle-distance race, with double athlete prize money and a TV-quality webcast.

Meanwhile, in the very same sentence in which Ms. Fleshman notes that it’s “awesome” to have a commercial, she also — in parentheses — asks “was it an MSI project like Road to Sopot? I’m curious.”

MSI stands for “Max Siegel Inc.”

It’s no secret that Siegel is a businessman. Indeed, on the MSI webpage it declares, “Our access to sports, multicultural, media and entertainment properties helps us to seamlessly integrate clients and properties with their target markets — and beyond.”

What is it about Siegel, who is African-American, that seems to be so off-putting to detractors?

The USOC has made diversity and inclusion a point of emphasis under chief executive Scott Blackmun, particularly in the management ranks of the national governing bodies.

Yet from the start of Siegel’s tenure, it has been as if nothing could be good enough. Consider the controversy over the tie in the women’s 100-meter dash at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. Siegel had come on the job just weeks before. Yet he took considerable heat because there wasn’t a proper procedure in place? Where in all of this was Robert Hersh, the rules guru — the longtime U.S. seat-holder on the IAAF council, whom the USATF delegates voted in Anaheim in December to send back to the IAAF, only to see the USATF board opt for Stephanie Hightower instead?

Really, you do wonder.

Because wouldn’t you think that a chief executive who — now two-plus years in — brings in big financial numbers ought to be cut some slack?

At the beginning of her blog, Ms. Fleshman suggests, “Feel free to do your own homework.”

To emphasize, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. At the same time, the danger of throwing stuff out there without doing your homework is that it if it’s not opinion — that is, if there are actually facts out there — those opinions, often needlessly, rile people up. And then the stuff that gets people riled up can get repeated as if it were gospel.

Which in the case of Lauren Fleshman’s blog — you have to ask, are there facts?

Or, as she herself notes in her Dec. 19 Runner’s World blog, “… if you’re gonna fling mud, come out with the evidence.”

The videos about which she inquires that recapped the journey to the 2014 indoor world championships? They were called “Path to Poland,” not “Road to Sopot,” and were executive produced — like the “You’re Welcome” commercial — by Siegel in his capacity as USATF chief executive. Not, repeat not, as MSI guy.

It should be worth noting that the “Path to Poland” series last year focused on the the breakout 800-meter star Ajee Wilson (adidas), the middle-distance runner Morgan Uceny (adidas), the everlasting Bernard Lagat (Nike) and shot-putter Ryan Whiting (Nike). If you’re keeping score, that’s two Nike athletes, two not.

The “You’re Welcome” spot features stars from yesteryear as well as now. That means USATF had to use footage owned by the USOC and the International Olympic Committee. Such usage involves specific restrictions from both entities, including what logos could be shown and where the commercial could be aired (to use a term of art, it was geo-restricted).

Such restrictions — and this is a USOC rule, not anything to do with USATF — means the commercial could not show any logos outside the so-called “Olympic family.”

No logos were airbrushed, manipulated, digitally altered. There are and were not any conspiracies.

Of the seven current athletes in the spot, four are not Nike athletes.

Indeed, one of the four, Brenda Martinez, bronze medalist in the 800-meters at the 2013 world championships in Moscow, posted on her Instagram account a retort to Ms. Fleshman’s article that said, in part, “Please take me out of [your] article,” adding, “We have it really good here in the US compared to other countries. Without the support of @newbalance & @usatf I wouldn’t have a medal.”

Ms. Fleshman did not take Ms. Martinez out. She did post an addendum to her blog that said, “Others have perfectly valid opinions that differ from mine, including Brenda Martinez.” To her credit, Ms. Fleshman added on Ms. Martinez’s Instagram account, “I’m sorry if my post distressed you.”

Another athlete, David Oliver, the 2013 world champ in the 110-meter hurdles, made these posts to his Twitter account:

And this, referring to hurdles competitors Liu Xiang of China and Dayron Robles of Cuba, and to the IAAF, track and field’s international governing body:

At any rate, going back to the original assertion, that USATF pits Nike against non-Nike athletes:

Of USATF’s athlete support funds, more than 60 percent of those supported are non-Nike athletes. Here is the real disparity: USATF financially supports more athletes not affiliated with its primary sponsor than it does those who wear Nike gear.

Top-tier athletes get five-figure support each year, the kind Ms. Martinez is talking about. It’s all part of an $11-million annual athlete support package that also includes sports medicine, sport performance workshops, TV and webcast coverage with athletes wearing — whatever.

Is USATF truly discriminating? At the end of 2013, it sent out a photo book to sponsors. The very first picture: pole vault star Jenn Suhr in adidas gear. Go through the book. There’s Duane Solomon, that year’s U.S. 800 champ, in his Saucony gear.

Ms. Fleshman notes that a USATF calendar was “recently mailed out to all USATF members” that included a photo of “Leo Monzano,” note the misspelling, who is the 1500 silver medalist from the London 2012 Games, wearing a Nike uniform. When not wearing a national-team uniform, Manzano is sponsored by Hoka One One. “He was not asked permission nor compensated for a photo being used that undercut his sponsor relationship,” she asserted.

The calendar was given away, not sold, to USATF membership. USATF lost money on the calendar, which it paid to produce and send out. It was a gift to members in a bid to get them excited about the red, white and blue — and Manzano is the first American to have won a medal in the men’s 1500 since Jim Ryun in 1968, more than 40 years.

Then, this — in the third paragraph from the end in her blog, Ms. Fleshman says, “USATF selling the national team uniform is one thing. But what else have they sold? Serious question. Email me if you know.”

How about just doing it right here? Serious answer:

— Major grass-roots initiative to Hershey (Run Jump Throw).

— Program providing educational opportunities to elite athletes, among others (University of Phoenix).

— Program that provides free language training to top athletes and provides royalties directly to athletes (Rosetta Stone).

— An app that provides royalties directly to athletes (Coaches Eye).

— Title sponsorship to the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic, a meet Ms. Fleshman herself has competed at, with the money going directly to the meet and athlete support.

All of that is in the last year.

As was noted in the last column in this space about USATF, reasonable criticism, delivered in a spirit of tolerance and good will, is always fair game.

But homework — requisite due diligence — is eminently fair, too.