Trying to Make Sense of USATF’s Suspension of Vin Lananna — Was This A Silent Coup?

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February 19, 2018

This afternoon USATF issued a press release announcing that USATF President Vin Lananna has been placed on administrative leave because of a Department of Justice investigation into the awarding of several international athletics championships, including the 2021 IAAF World Championships to Eugene, Oregon. In addition to his role as USATF President, Lananna serves as the president of TrackTown USA, the group that led Eugene’s bid for the 2021 World Championships.

USATF board chair Steve Miller said in the press release, “USATF has no reason to believe TrackTown and/or Mr. Lananna have done anything wrong and understand that they have been told that they are not a target of the investigation.” Nonetheless, the press release said Lananna was being placed on leave “in a step taken to help eliminate potential conflict of interest concerns.” Under Article 10F of the USATF bylaws, the Board said it was making Michael Conley, the former triple jump star, interim president. Article 10F of the USATF bylaws says, “If the Board determines that the President is temporarily unable to serve, it may, in its sole discretion, name another individual to fill the vacancy temporarily.”

Nearly eight months ago in June, the BBC first reported that the FBI was investigating the awarding of the World Championships to Eugene. Lamine Diack, the former head of the IAAF who is under arrest in France on corruption charges, awarded the 2021 championships to Eugene without the customary formal bid process in April 2015. On January 31, 2018, Rebecca Ruiz of the New York Times reported that the investigation was heating up, that subpoenas had been made and individuals “were asked to appear in federal court as soon as this week (first week of February).”

Phil Knight (l) and Vin Lananna (r) in 2013

Phil Knight (l) and Vin Lananna (r) in 2013

The next day, Chris Hansen of the Eugene Register-Guard reported that neither the University of Oregon (which will host the Championships, and where Lananna is an assistant athletic director) nor USATF were aware of any investigations going on.

One note on USATF’s structure: while Lananna is the president of USATF, he is not its CEO and does not run its day-to-day operations. Max Siegel, the CEO of USATF, remains in his position.

We have three quick thoughts on today’s development. 

QT #1: USATF’s press release makes no sense and the public deserves an updated release. If TrackTown USA did nothing wrong and isn’t the target of the investigation, then why suspend Vin Lananna?

As noted above, USATF board chair Steve Miller said that while USATF “has no reason to believe TrackTown and/or Mr. Lananna have done anything wrong and understand that they have been told that they are not a target of the investigation,” Lananna has been suspended “to avoid any conflict or appearance of conflict of interest in relation to the investigation.” However, USATF never explains why it believes it’s a conflict of interest for Lananna to serve as USATF President while the DOJ investigates the awarding of the 2021 World Championships. It was known Lananna was head of Eugene’s bid when he ran and was elected president of the USATF in 2016. An investigation into the awarding of the 2021 Worlds does not change any conflicts of interest Lananna had.

One could argue that the fact that the 2021 World Championships are being investigated by the DOJ is reason enough to place Lananna on leave, given his role at TrackTown USA and his importance to the successful bid, but that’s not what the release says. And if that’s the case, then Lananna should have been suspended not because of a conflict of interest, but because the Board does not feel he can be an effective leader while anything to do with the 2021 Worlds is under investigation.  But USATF was also involved in that bid process, which means that if the investigation is the sole reason for Lananna’s suspension, he probably shouldn’t be the only person at USATF placed on leave.

When Eugene was announced as the host of the 2021 Worlds then USATF President Stephanie Hightower explained to the media that USATF and TrackTown USA “worked together on this project to bring this to fruition. This has truly been a group effort, there was not a whole entity that carried this by itself.”

If USATF is going to go through the trouble of releasing a press release explaining why Lananna was placed on leave, it needs to present an actual explanation rather than citing nebulous “conflicts of interest” that generate more questions than answers.

QT #2: Did the Board get what it wanted by effectively removing Lananna from office?

Earlier this month, the news broke that the USATF Board had stripped Lananna of some of his authority. Eleven days ago, Jeff Manning of The Oregonian reported, “The [USATF] board passed a two-page resolution in October that, among other things, forces the former University of Oregon track and field coach [Lananna] to recuse himself from any matter that involves his companies or their competitors.” Board chair Miller questioned the effectiveness of Lananna as a leader saying, “Vin has been engaged in complete conflict of interest. The outcome of the vote is that he has to recuse himself from the vast majority of what he does as president of USATF. Your effectiveness as leader is greatly diminished when you can’t be in the room.”

However, to try to remove Lananna from office (the board cannot remove Lananna on its own; it has to call a special USATF meeting and have ⅔ of the delegates vote to remove Lananna), the Board would need a justification greater than Lananna’s previously stated conflicts of interests, which were already known when Lananna was elected USATF President.

But was this federal investigation the pretext the Board needed to get what they wanted — Lananna out of office (which this measure today effectively does as the investigation could last months or years) — without the Board having to go to the trouble of being accountable to removing Lananna from office?

For an organization that is ostensibly concerned with appearances, USATF should have taken the time to consider what placing Lananna on leave would do for its own image.

QT #3: If Lananna is going to be effectively removed from his job permanently, then the Board should attempt to remove him from office, not suspend him.

Simple point, but if Lananna was aware TrackTown USA was under investigation and did not immediately notify the USATF board, we wouldn’t have a problem if the Board initiated procedures to try to remove him from office under the argument that it showed such bad judgment that he should not be USATF President (USATF said it only received confirmation of the investigation within the past 10 days but that Lananna and TrackTown USA were contacted by federal law enforcement months ago). Or if USATF thinks he can’t be an effective leader while there is an investigation, then put it up to a vote at a special USATF convention. But that is not what the Board did. Miller has said they have no reason to believe Lananna has done anything wrong and yet Lananna is suspended? Please explain how that makes sense.

Update: Becca Gillespy Peter of points out in this facebook post that the Board suspended Lananna under Bylaw 10F, “If the Board determines that the President is temporarily unable to serve, it may, in its sole discretion, name another individual to fill the vacancy temporarily.” As she points out, Vin Lananna is perfectly “able” to serve as USATF President. The Board just doesn’t want him to. As she writes, “The Board determined that Vin was “unable” to serve… but that is bullshit. The intent of the rule is to cover a situation where like the President is in a car crash and is in a coma for a few months, or like has an issue and needs to be in rehab and is either physically or mentally unable to serve.”

Full USATF Press Release is here.

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Posted in: Column, LRC