The race card, and more, at USATF


For years, the U.S. Olympic Committee seemed to be bent on being destroyed from within by petty politics. Now there is a dissident cohort in USA Track & Field that is playing the same game, and, it has to be said, playing the gender and race cards. A letter from USATF board chair Stephanie Hightower in the ordinary course of business prompted one of the most outrageous pieces of correspondence in recent Olympic memory, from USATF youth division chair Lionel Leach.

To be blunt: Leach pulled the race card.

USATF youth division chair Lionel Leach

He pulled the black-on-black race card on Hightower, who is also African-American.

If no one else in the United States, or elsewhere, wants to call out Leach for what he did, here it is. That’s what he did.

It’s wrong, it’s offensive, it has zero place in our world and especially in the Olympic scene, which seeks to build a better, more peaceful world through sport.

This space has called repeatedly for civility and tolerance, particularly when it comes to dialogue at USATF.

That’s what Hightower pursued.

In the aftermath of last December’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Hightower — as she has every right to do — sent a March 6 letter to Tim Baker, her appointee on the USATF law & legislation committee. Apparently concerned at some of his comments at the meeting, she said in the letter, “You are my appointee on my committee, but your statements and activities seem to indicate that your commitment to advancing mutual organizational goals may be waning.”

Then, she said, “If you would like to continue as my appointee, please call me so we can discuss.”

For those concerned about the use of the word “my” in “my committee,” let’s deconstruct. Hightower is the chairwoman of the board. Thus she bears ultimate responsibility. If she were truly running a "dictatorship" at USATF, as some of her critics would want to allege, Hightower would simply take over the committee itself. Which she is not doing. Logic is what it is.

Two days later, Leach issued a three-page document that started with him saying he was lying in bed — what? — thinking of the “great sacrifices” made by Martin Luther King Jr., Rep. John Lewis (D.-Ga.) and hundreds of others seeking to register African-American voters in the South, invoking the “Bloody Sunday” march 50 years ago from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.

This has what to do with the USATF, please?

Answer: it has absolutely zero to do with track, field, Stephanie Hightower or Tim Baker.

Leach goes on:

“Alabama state troopers wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas threatened and attacked the marchers. Governor Wallace refused to protect the marchers and allowed the attack to take place, making this day one of the most disturbing days in our nation’s history. Wallace believed in discrimination, disenfranchisement, and plain bullying. We all recognize bullying as the use of superior strength or influence to intimidate those who are weaker and to force them to do the bully’s bidding.”

The only bullying here is from Leach.

He is attempting to bully Hightower. Let us be clear about this.

He goes on:

“In the wake of this seminal American moment, a half century later,” which to reiterate has nothing to do with USA Track and Field in 2015, “I am saddened to say I heard about and then read a disturbing letter that makes our governor, Bully Supreme Chris Christie of the great state of New Jersey, look like an angel.”

Let’s stop, again. The Republican governor Chris Christie? What in the world does Christie have to do with any of this, aside from the fact that Leach is a union activist in Democratic-leaning New Jersey?

Again, nothing. This is political rhetoric.

Strike that. It is flat-out political bullying.

“Every day,” Leach goes on, “the members in the union I represent are bullied by their bosses all day long. I don’t let them get away with it, and I most certainly will not allow it to happen in the USATF, the organization I love most in the world.”

OK, Mr. Leach.

It’s a free country. You get the right to say what you want.

Now you get to be called on it.

Your letter goes on to call Ms. Hightower’s letter to Mr. Baker “Bullying 101.” You further describe it as “offensive, disrespectful and downright abuse.”

On what grounds?

On the second page of your letter, you say, “As a constituent leader, I have an obligation to this organization and to the youth membership — better known by all as my 85,000 babies — to protect their rights, and make this sport of track and field better than the way I found it.”

Say again: “… better known by all as my 85,000 babies…”? Seriously? What sort of paternalistic fantasy world are you living in, sir?

The penultimate paragraph of your letter says, “In closing, this organization is called USATF, not Ms. Hightower Track and Field. How dare you send this man a letter in this tone.”

Let’s pause once more. Let’s consider for a moment the tone of the two pieces of correspondence. Which of the two is a business letter and which is a three-page screed?

The hyperbole continues: Mr. Leach, you then go on to say the tone of Ms. Hightower’s letter reminds you of Oct. 20, 1973, the so-called “Saturday Night Massacre” during the Watergate scandal. In the last paragraph, you then say, “You may view that as a threat or a history lesson. Either way, I don’t care. What I do care about is the integrity and leadership of USATF; hopefully, you will find it in your heart to display more of both.”

To compare Ms. Hightower’s request for a phone call with the Watergate matter is inflammatory and inaccurate rhetoric in the extreme. In this context, for it to have come from someone purporting to represent the interests of young people is hugely inappropriate.

As you well know, Mr. Leach, if you have been checking your email inbox, on the matter of integrity and leadership, here are some of the replies your letter has generated:

— “I find your letter to President Hightower wholly inappropriate and full of ridiculous innuendo.  Thank you for providing the document she sent to Mr. Baker so I could judge for myself and not rely on your bizarre attempts to analogize "Bloody Sunday" and the Nixon dismissals with a simple letter.  What a stretch. Who are you to threaten people or give history lessons? Read the letters again and assess who is the bully? Next time maybe wait till morning before you hit send and if you still maintain the poor judgment to do so, don't send it to me.” —

— “Hello Mr. Leach, STOP corrupting the youth in USATF IMMEDIATELY! I am the angry mother of [a] 16 year old student-athlete … Members of [corporations] get fired and removed from office for this type of behavior on a much smaller scale every day. Teachers get fired for expressing their opinion in the classroom. You care for your 85,000 babies so much and fancy yourself as a chair of a youth program? Why did you just poison them? You should be ashamed of yourself!”

— “Mr. Leach-I am appalled you sent this email to USATF members. Your behavior is juvenile and unconscionable. It reminds me of a schoolyard bully trying to get the other kids on his side. You have taken a private matter between Mr. Baker and Mrs. Hightower and asked others to get involved that DO NOT have all the facts. You should be ashamed of yourself. This may be your tactic for your union work but has no place in a youth organization! I have read both letters and your letter is ten times more intimidating and bullying than Mrs. Hightower's. … You really should apologize to your "85,000 babies" for your irresponsible behavior. My child, who is a USATF athlete, overheard my husband I talking about this, and labeled you as a cyber bully. I agree! You are not setting a good example of how adults should react to conflict and it frightens and saddens me that you are representing the USATF organization.”

These people get it.

Mr. Leach, you should, too. You owe a lot of people an apology. Then you should resign your USATF position, immediately.

All of the rest of you who purport to be supporting Mr. Leach: you might want to think about where you stand as well.

None of you — seriously, nobody amid the controversy this week at the University of Oklahoma  — thought to step up and say that what Mr. Leach wrote has no place in our civil dialogue?

Your petty focus on Stephanie Hightower and whether she is a “dictator,” which is laughably absurd, keeps you from seeing the big picture?

It is wrong, wrong, wrong to conflate USATF and Stephanie Hightower in 2015 with George Wallace in 1965 and "discrimination, disenfranchisement and plain bullying," and Alabama state troopers "wielding whips, nightsticks and tear gas [threatening] and [attacking] the marchers ..."

If track and field in the United States is to be taken seriously, then the people who take it seriously now — that is, the people who love it the most — have the most responsibility to take care of it. That means stepping back and seeing what’s really happening. Racism in any or all its forms cannot be tolerated, whether white on black, black on black, purple on green.

All of you, meanwhile, on the Let’s Run message boards, when you see a post like this:

“Yea, it screamed "well you can't not agree with us sooo..." to me. This is what happens when we give women positions of power. The feck schit up.”

No one condemns this noise? No one?

Everyone, this is it, loud and clear:

Stephanie Hightower is an intelligent, resourceful, assertive, powerful black woman.

She didn’t get to be who she is without being a combination of all of those things.

Her strength and willingness to engage, and when necessary engage in constructive conflict, is an asset. It is an asset at USA Track and Field, and it will prove of benefit on behalf of U.S. interests at the IAAF, track and field’s worldwide governing body, when she goes to that board.

It’s 2015. If you don’t like or at least appreciate all that, get over yourself. And start acting with decency and tolerance.