Editorial: We Respect Nick Symmonds, But Don’t Have a Lot of Sympathy He Won’t Be at Worlds

by LetsRun.com
August 12, 2015

What do we think of the USATF/Nick Symmonds controversy?

As ex-athletes we applaud and respect Symmonds for standing up for athlete rights and pointing out the absurdity of USATF’s letter telling athletes to pack “ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel.” USATF needs to clarify when athletes need to wear Team USA gear at the World Champs.

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At the same time, we don’t have a lot of sympathy that Symmonds won’t be at the World Championships. Nick Symmonds, the athlete, would have found a way to be at Worlds and address this incident there.

The whole incident in some ways feels incredibly trivial. Nick Symmonds will not be running the World Champs, not because he doesn’t agree he has to wear the Nike swoosh during competition or warmups, or at official team functions, but rather because USATF would not put it in writing that he did not have to wear Team USA gear in his free time. It could have been avoided on so many levels.

We share a few of our key thoughts below.

We agree with Symmonds’ central assertion:

1) All athletes should be able to wear whatever they want at Worlds when they are on their private time and operating in a private capacity

Portion of USATF letter telling athletes ONLY to pack non branded gear

Portion of USATF letter telling athletes ONLY to pack non branded gear

If athletes are on their own private time, then they should be allowed to wear whatever the hell they want. Symmonds speaking out made it clear that some USATF officials way overstepped their bounds in the past. As we said in the intro, the USATF letter telling athletes that they should pack “ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel” is crazy. Symmonds said he was told to wear Team USA gear while getting coffee in the team hotel at World Indoors last year. U.S. sprinter Bianca Knight has tweeted out indicating she was told by USATF staff to wear Nike gear when leaving the hotel. That type of behavior may seem trivial, but it shows some at USATF forget who they work for. Nike is not USATF – it is a sponsor of the national team.

On the other hand, we’re fine with the following:

2) Athletes should wear official Team USA gear while competing and at Official Team USA events including official practices while in Beijing.

This is what happens in other sports all the time. There are a ton of video clips of the adidas-sponsored Derrick Rose giving interviews in Nike gear at events related to the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, like this one which was done in Chicago after an official practice. (Rose even went further and wore Nike gear to a team trip on a day off to the beach as shown here, which should not be required)

The Statement of Conditions Symmonds was asked to sign looks fairly standard and is not that unreasonable on the surface. In part it read:

I will dress appropriately and respectfully for all “official” Team functions, wearing the designated Team uniforms provided by USATF. I understand that USATF’s sponsor contract for uniforms depends upon athletes wearing the uniform and using the uniform items at competitions, award ceremonies, “official” Team press conferences, and other “official” Team functions, and that I shall not participate in any of these activities with a logo of any competitor of USATF’s sponsor affixed to me in any manner whatsoever.

On the surface it places no restrictions on what an athlete can wear in their free time. (Athletes in the past at Worlds have done press events for their sponsors in non-Team USA gear. Here is Tyson Gay in adidas gear at the 2009 Worlds.)

Reasonable people would not define free time as an “official” Team function. The big, big problem here is the document does not define what an “official” Team function is and USATF officials in the past have been very unreasonable. They have tried to restrict what athletes wear in their free time. They have told Bianca Knight what to wear when leaving the hotel, and Nick Symmonds said he was told he shouldn’t wear Brooks gear at coffee. Ridiculous.

3) Nick Symmonds the Athlete Would Have Found a Way to Be in Beijing

Symmonds could have signed the document, gone to represent Team USA, and then told any USATF staff, “this is not an official Team USA function, I am free to wear what I want” if they tried to get him to wear Nike gear in his free time. He could have then rallied other athletes to his cause and publicized the absurdity of USATF’s actions.

Instead he refused to sign the document as is, or to sign it with his own addendum outlining what he thought an official Team USA event was and left the door open to be kicked off the team. USATF should NEVER have kicked him off the team, but if Symmonds’ #1 priority was to be in Beijing, we don’t think he would have left the door open to being kicked off.

Symonds has said he is businessman first and an athlete second. As ex-athletes, we want to first see Nick Symmonds the athlete. He is an incredibly inspiring runner who has defied the odds time after time. We and tens of thousands others won’t get the chance to be inspired by Symonds in Beijing because Nick Symmonds won’t be running there.

For Nick Symmonds, the brand, not being in Beijing is not a terrible outcome. He has garnered way, way more attention than if he went to Beijing and pushed for change there. A high school teammate of LRC co-founders Weldon and Robert Johnson, who follows the sport casually now, brought up Nick Symmonds to us and said, “I’d never heard of him,” and then discussed how terrible for Symmonds it must be to not be at Worlds. We explained to him that for Symmonds the brand it was not a terrible outcome.

4) Max Siegel showed no leadership in not clarifying what an official “team function” is / USATF was extremely stupid to not actually naming Symmonds to Worlds even when he refused to sign the contract

If USATF CEO Max Siegel had issued a statement saying the USATF letter to Team USA members telling them to only pack “ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel” was in error and then reiterated that athletes were free to wear whatever they wanted in their free time, and must only wear USATF/Nike gear when they’re at the stadium and during practice, press conferences and medal ceremonies, Symmonds likely would have signed the Statement of Conditions that athletes must sign to compete in Beijing.

Instead, USATF, when asked by Letsrun.com to comment or define what an official Team USA function was, said in an email from Director of Communications Jill Geer, “Given that Nick has indicated this may enter a legal dispute it would be inappropriate to discuss technical points of these matters.”  Also, Siegel in a letter to Symmonds said nothing could be done because the Statement of Conditions is a legislative matter that could only be changed at the USATF annual meeting.

That is a lawyer talking. If Max Siegel can not clarify what an “official Team USA function” is, and cannot correct an erroneous letter put out by his staff, he should not be CEO of USATF. By being obtuse and not clarifying what an official Team USA event is, USATF upped the stakes.

USATF then had the option to turn a blind eye and let Symmonds go to Beijing or to kick him off the team. They chose the inflammatory action and by ‘kicking Symmonds off the team,’ they gave the PR-savvy Symmonds exactly what he wanted. If we were USATF and were unable to write up what an official team function is (but come on, how hard is that?), we would have let Symmonds go regardless and then addressed the issue of what a ‘team function’ is down the road. It’s not like the paparazzi are going to be sitting in the team hotel in Beijing waiting to film Symmonds while having coffee. Well we take that back, if Symmonds now showed up in Beijing for coffee, they might be interested!

5) Hyperbole isn’t helping Nick Symmonds’ cause either.

Symmonds has a lot of supporters but some of them, including us, feel as if he’s gone too far with the hyperbole.

In an interview on StatesmanJournal.com, Symmonds said, “I am not going to sit there and watch that 800 meter final from my couch, knowing that I can go out there and win a medal, knowing that I am passing up on potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings … that stinks.”

Saying he’s passing up on potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in earnings seems a bit like us saying we are passing out on potentially millions of dollars when we don’t buy a Powerball ticket (ok that is a little hyperbole on our part). In 2013, with no David Rudisha and Nijel Amos in the field, Symmonds was second. That pays $30,000. Sure, with a bonus it could be worth six figures, but it was going to be much harder for Symmonds to medal in 2015 than 2013. In 2013, only world champion Mo Aman broke 1:43.00 (a time Symmonds has broken once in his life) on the year and he did it after Worlds. This year, three people have already done it. Moreover, in 2013, Symmonds had a 1:43.67 seasonal best heading into Worlds – this year it’s 1:44.53. So the odds of a medal, on paper, don’t look good. Additionally, Symmonds could potentially be gaining money down the road. By taking a stand and becoming viewed in some quarters as a modern-day Pre, Symmonds could be setting himself up for a lifetime of speaking engagements.

Additionally, Symmonds has an op-ed that he wrote for The Huffington Post. The opening had a glaring misstatement:

“Every day for the past two years I woke up with a purpose: to return to the IAAF World Championships to win another medal for my country. For two full years I trained. Thousands of miles logged, hours spent in the pool, at the gym, and countless other sacrifices made. My hard work seemed to be paying off when I won my fifth consecutive 800-meter title at the 2015 USA Outdoor Championships.”

What’s wrong about that?

List of Last Three US Champions at 800
2015 US 800 champion – Nick Symmonds
2014 US 800 champion – Duane Solomon
2013 US 800 champion – Duane Solomon

Now only running insiders may notice these things, but Symmonds already has the facts on his side. He does not need to exaggerate anything.

If Nick Symmonds’ priority was running for Team USA, he would have found a way to be in Beijing. There are much bigger fish to fry than what he can wear to coffee. Related to that:

6) We Hope Nick Symmonds Saved Some Bullets For Something Bigger (The Rio Olympics)

Believe it or not, the IAAF and USATF treat athletes way better than the International Olympic Committee and USOC when it comes in working with their own sponsors. As noted above, Tyson Gay was allowed to go to an adidas press conference at the 2009 Worlds.

IOC rule 40 has for years prevented non-Olympic sponsors from advertising during the Olympics. If in 2016, Brooks wants to do an advertisement with Nick Symmonds during the Olympics, it flat-out isn’t allowed. The IOC would throw Symmonds out of the Olympics if Brooks ran an ad with him in it.

To some fanfare this year, the IOC announced that it was relaxing rule 40 for the Rio Olympics. Well the new USOC rule 40 regulations are out. If Brooks wants to promote Nick Symmonds on LetsRun.com only during the Rio Olympics or on any other media outlet, it won’t be allowed. Any advertising has to be generic and running four months in advance of the Olympics to be allowed. So the USOC is preventing athletes with their own sponsorships from maximizing their earnings during the Olympics. (And yes, they are preventing media outlets, like ourselves, from maximizing their revenue as well). Now that Symmonds has the media’s attention, we hope he carries on the fight in 2016 as the Olympics are a much bigger deal on every level.

Starting the discussion on how much revenue athletes are getting from the new Nike deal is a just cause for Symmonds, but he didn’t have to get kicked off the Beijing team to do it.

While we’re talking about how USATF employees will go to great lengths to protect Nike’s brand, we should talk about the greatest Nike-USATF injustice and that is not whether Nick Symmonds can wear Brooks to coffee. This one is much more important and has been driving us nuts for 16 months.

7) USATF signed a 20+ year deal with Nike to outfit the national team, without soliciting competitive bids

Last year USATF signed a 20+ year deal with Nike (for a reported $500 million) without soliciting competitive bids from other companies. A non-profit should be soliciting competitive bids, for the sake of transparency, especially when USATF’s CEO’s Max Siegel’s racing team is sponsored by Nike. Talk about a conflict of intersest.

USATF’s supporters point out that Nike has increased its support of USATF to more than $20 million per year. That doesn’t impress us. Last year, when Nike and Under Armour got into a bidding war for Kevin Durant, his contract nearly quadrupled. It went from 7 years and $60 million to 10 years and $300 million. So who is to say that USATF doubling its contract is a good thing? We don’t know as USATF did not solicit bids from other companies. Spencer Nel of adidas told LRC this past winter that adidas was very interested in sponsoring USATF but was not given the chance to bid. Under Armour is starting to kick some serious butt in apparel, but struggling to make an impact in shoes. Imagine what it might bid to sponsor Team USA.

We understand why you sign the deal if you’re head of USATF. Once you sign it, you’re no longer worrying about covering the yearly operating costs of USATF and you can put on your résumé that you doubled revenues. But do you think Max Siegel, if he was USATF’s agent, rather than CEO, and was going to get a direct cut of the revenue, would he have signed it without asking others what they’d pay? We don’t think so.

Yes we know the USATF Board signed off on the deal, but the Chair of the Board, Steve Miller, used to work at Nike and hired John Capriotti, who is global director of athletics (track and field) at Nike. With all of these interlinks between USATF and Nike, it was even more important for USATF to bid out the contract.

Speaking of Siegel, it’s been said even by Symmonds that in terms of defining an official “team function” that Siegel doesn’t have the authority to define it.

So Siegel has the authority to agree to a no-bid, 20-year contract with Nike, a company which conveniently also sponsors his racing team, but not the authority to define what an official team function is? That shows the absurdity of how USATF operates on so many levels. One would think the contract, which is vital to USATF’s existence, would have clearly defined an official team function in great detail, given the fact that most of the value in the contract comes from the Nike swoosh being worn by all U.S. athletes at Worlds/Olympics.

Well we can’t write about this any longer without pulling our hair out. So we’ll close on a lighter note. There is one huge positive part of USATF insisting that U.S. athletes only wear Nike-branded gear in Bejing. It looks like the dreams of all the teenage guys on the messageboad are about to become reality.

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