Anyone who has spent a number of years in journalism recognizes a story written with the full intent of being submitted at the end of the year, maybe as part of a package, to prize juries.
The question is whether the Washington Post story published Friday about USA Track & Field also gets recognized for what it further is: a story laced with implicit bias about the only federation in the U.S. Olympic scene with significant African-American leadership as well as one driven by source interviews animated by the same stupid, tiresome, fourth grade-style playground politics that have in years past all but destroyed USATF.
This story comes after the U.S. track team won 32 medals at the Rio Games, passing the long-targeted 30 mark. Max Siegel is the USATF chief executive. Did either of his two predecessors, Craig Masback or Doug Logan, both mentioned in the Post story, lead a team that got to 30? No. Is that mentioned? No.
Last month, the U.S. Olympic Committee acknowledged that it and the sports it leads are way behind the curve in the placement of women and minorities in key coaching and leadership positions. The exception: USATF. Siegel is African-American. So, too, chief operating officer Renee Washington. So, too, president Stephanie Hightower. Of the 15-member USATF board of directors, 10 are people of color.
Is any of that mentioned? No.
So what is? That Siegel flies business or first-class, or even on a private jet?
People, that’s what business executives do. Why is the black guy getting singled out for that?
Last October, Siegel opened his email to find not one but two vile emails loaded with threats and repeated use of the n-word. Is any of that mentioned? No.
If the point of the story is that Siegel is flying up front while American athletes are sitting in the back — uh, wait. Someone call USA Swimming and ask if the entire team — the entire team — flew to Rio on Mark Cuban’s private jet.
The journalistic jargon for the kind of story the Post published about USATF, and in particular Siegel, is a “takedown.”
The point is not just to try to win prizes but to embarrass Siegel in particular and, as well, because it’s the Washington Post, to get a story in front of Congress, which has oversight over the U.S. Olympic scene.
The problem with this particular effort is that there is, as the famous saying about Oakland goes, no there there.
And it is riddled with fairness issues.
Nowhere in the lengthy story — which runs to some 4,000 words, or roughly 100 copy inches — will one find the words “misconduct” or “wrongdoing.”
The headline itself is so telling: Siegel “has alarmed some insiders with his spending and style.”
What white executive gets called out in one of the country’s leading newspapers on account of his style?
As for the substance:
Just to pick one of the observations in the story about Siegel’s “travel habits,” as the story calls them:
At the world indoor championships in March in Portland, Siegel for sure stayed at The Nines hotel. So did the senior executives of track and field’s world governing body, the International Assn. of Athletics Federations. One of the basics of the USATF top guy’s job is to forge and to maintain a constructive working relationship with IAAF leaders. It’s entirely reasonable to stay at the same hotel.
At any rate, those “habits”? Approved by the USATF board of directors.
His compensation package, loaded with performance bonuses that pushed his package to $1.7 million? Same.
USATF competes for sponsorship dollars against the four primary major leagues and the roughly 30 teams in each league. So to suggest that Siegel’s compensation package should somehow be measured against a “typical non-profit” just misses the mark.
Siegel buys a laptop and the assertion is he did so to save — or somehow evade — all of $112 in sales taxes? One, it’s a work-related laptop so he’s saving USATF money. Second, this is so ticky-tack it’s hard to even know why it was deemed publishable. When was the last time a white chief executive was harassed over $112 in sales tax?
By the way — a guy who took in $1.7 million can’t afford $112? Come on. The double standard is outrageous.
The $500 million Nike deal with USATF that is due to generate $23.7 million in commissions over the length of the deal, through 2039? Like either is a bad thing? One, as the story itself notes, the commission amounts to less than five percent. Two, the story asserts that the role of the two guys getting the commission “has not previously been disclosed.” Except that in the next sentence it says that the 2014 USATF 990 tax form lists the payment.
Wait a minute. A Form 990 is a public document. Just to be obvious — that means it has in every regard previously been disclosed. The document sits on the USATF website.
The insinuation that there’s something amiss because USATF has done work with Matchbook, a marketing company that once shared office space with Max Siegel Inc.? As Siegel wrote in a memorandum in August to the USATF board of directors, “I do not own a stake in Matchbook Creative, have never owned a stake in the company and do not financially profit from the vendor relationship.”
Meantime, the story is punctuated with quotes critical of Siegel’s leadership “style.” In the interest of fairness, and referring back to the headline about the purported “alarm” of “insiders”:
The juicy quote about “leadership” and “Marie Antoinette” that ends the first copy block comes from the California lawyer David Greifinger, the former USATF board counsel.
Does the story disclose that, as former board counsel, Greifinger would have every reason to want that job back? No. Does it disclose that Greifinger is playing an active role opposing USATF in ongoing litigation — a lawsuit brought by the federation against the 13 former members of its youth committee involving a dispute over meet-registration software? That Greifinger is representing the other side and would thus have ample incentive to be critical of Siegel? No.
The story asserts that the “office environment” at USATF is now “authoritarian and tense.”
That’s somehow newsworthy? Iron-fisted white executives typically get showered with praise for running a tight ship but the black guy somehow is “authoritarian and tense?” Absurd. It’s also not true. Check with Duffy Mahoney, the USATF director of high performance. Over his nearly 30-year USATF career, he has been through it all and seen it all, the Masback years, the Logan years and more; he loves working with both Washington and Siegel. Is Mahoney quoted in the story? No.
The story offers quotes from the former USATF accounting manager Melissa Bowlby. In one, she says Siegel and Washington have “just made [USATF] their playground.” As for her credibility — maybe someone ought to ask if there is anything the reasonable person might find interesting in her USATF personnel file.
Then there is the email exchange involving Siegel and Jon Drummond, identified in the story as “an influential retired athlete.”
At the time of the exchange, Drummond was chair of the USATF athletes’ committee. The story highlights, in the third paragraph, a snippet in which Siegel says he will “fuck anyone up that goes after me personally.”
The accompanying screenshot farther down does what the story does not — provide the context, in which Siegel also makes plain the difference between what’s business and what’s personal.
In a perfect world, should Siegel be sending those kinds of texts? No. That said, is the recipient someone likely to be offended? Drummond is himself no stranger to attention-getting devices — see his performance at the 2003 Paris world championships, lying down in protest on the track after a false-start call, a stunt that delayed competition for nearly an hour.
At any rate: the idea that someone might drop an f-bomb is hardly news.
This, however, is: Jon Drummond is serving an eight-year doping-related suspension involving the sprinter Tyson Gay that arguably wrecked Gay’s career.
That for sure cuts to Drummond’s credibility. Is that mentioned in the story? No.
Finally, there is this, which underscores the real point of what’s going on at USATF: the organization is changing, for the way better, and a bunch of people who are not ‘insiders” but are on the outside looking in are pissed off about it. So, in the style they know, they are leveraging the Post to pursue petty personal politics, just like in the old days, in the hope that they can for real be “insiders.”
If for some inexplicable reason Siegel were to go, the chief operating officer takes over. That’s Washington.
From the story — an email provided by a former retail and marketing manager in which Washington calls Jill Geer, the federation’s longtime communications director, a “bitch.”
Again: like that’s worth being in the newspaper?
Here’s a good guess about why it’s in the paper. Geer declined to make Siegel available for the story. The reporter couldn’t himself call Geer a bitch in print for that. But, voila — the email.
You know what that is? That’s bitchy.
You might say: to the max.