By Jonathan Gault
August 13, 2015
Editor’s note: This article contains strong language.
Shortly after 10:35 a.m. on Sunday, June 28, Kara Goucher walked off the Hayward Field track. She had just finished 18th out of 20 runners in the women’s 5,000-meter final at the 2015 USATF Championships, but as she entered the media tent behind Hayward’s east grandstand, a swarm of reporters quickly enveloped the 36-year-old. Sporting a pink Oiselle kit with sunglasses pushed back to the top of her head, Goucher spoke passionately to the assembled scrum, discussing her role in the drug accusations against her former coach Alberto Salazar.
Five minutes and twenty seconds into her interview, a British journalist asked Goucher a question.
“Steve Magness said that Alberto has threatened him in the past. Has he or anyone else threatened you since this has all…”
“No,” Goucher replied. “But people have been threatened at this meet.”
LetsRun.com can now confirm that Goucher was correct. Last Tuesday, LetsRun.com acquired a police report from the University of Oregon Police Department detailing an incident that took place on the first night of USAs. The report, supported by multiple eyewitnesses, explains that Nike global director of athletics John Capriotti aggressively confronted and threatened to kill Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey on the night of Thursday, June 25.
What follows is an account of the night’s events according to the police report filed by Mackey. LetsRun.com spoke to Mackey and three other witnesses (we reached out to everyone named in the police report but not everyone responded), and all three supported Mackey’s version of events. Though not all witnesses could confirm the specifics of everything that was said between the two men, all agree that Capriotti initiated the confrontation and that he threatened Mackey, with one of the three specifically recalling that Capriotti threatened to kill Mackey.
Around 7 p.m. that night, shortly after Mackey’s Brooks athlete Dorian Ulrey finished his heat of the 1500 meters, Mackey escorted Ulrey to the medical tent at Hayward Field, located on the same set of turf athletic fields as the media tent in which Goucher would make her statement three days later. The two men sat down in the tent.
Unbeknownst to them, a hurricane was headed their way.
Will Leer, a Nike-sponsored athlete, had just finished his heat of the 1500 as well and was walking from the media tent back toward the athlete warmup area when “Cap[riotti] blew right by me charging across the infield,” Leer said. “I’m like, ‘That was weird, you don’t usually see those guys back here.’ And in quick succession, [fellow Nike employees] Llewellyn Starks and Ben Cesar were sort of hot on his heels trying to catch him… They all had serious look on their face. Serious and sort of troubled.”
“I thought it was a bit strange because you rarely see [Capriotti] in that area,” said a second witness. “I can’t remember seeing him in that area before. I could kind of tell just by body language he was kind of on a mission.”
A fourth Nike employee, Robert Lotwis, trailed behind.
As Capriotti entered the medical tent, he made a beeline for Mackey and grabbed Mackey’s right arm, almost pulling the coach out of his chair.
“We gotta talk right now,” Capriotti told Mackey, according to the police report (Editor’s note: All quotes between Mackey and Capriotti below come from the police report filed by Mackey).
Mackey was talking to Ulrey and asked Capriotti to wait a minute.
Capriotti poked Mackey in the chest, hard, with two fingers. By this point, Starks had caught up to Capriotti and was standing directly in front of Mackey, staring at him wordlessly.
Mackey said Capriotti asked him to go outside. Mackey told him to relax.
Then, according to Mackey, Capriotti took a knee, and with his nose touching Mackey’s right ear, whispered, “You know what you fuckin’ did. I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you.”
Mackey got up but Starks did not budge, and the two men stood chest-to-chest.
Mackey was confused. “I don’t know what you are talking about John,” he said. “You are going to kill me? For what?”
Capriotti proceeded to berate Mackey.
To this point, the two men had not raised their voice to avoid creating a stir. Angered by Capriotti’s comments, Mackey spoke to him, louder than before.
“Outside?” Mackey said. “You are going to fight me for what? You need to relax. Leave.”
Capriotti took a step toward Mackey and poked him again, harder this time.
Mackey claims that Capriotti told him that Mackey brought up Capriotti’s name in a meeting. Mackey, again, told Capriotti that he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Capriotti then, according to the police report, “made some statements eluding (sic) to Mackey being involved in the doping scandal that was reported just before the championships began.” Mackey responded by yelling, and a crowd of over 20 people began to form around the two.
The two men shouted at each other for several minutes, as Capriotti continued to berate Mackey.
“It was just an overwhelmingly bad situation,” Leer said. “In the case of this interaction, there was someone who was definitely in the wrong and then there was someone who was being attacked.”
Eventually, Starks stepped between the two and told Capriotti, “We gotta get outta here.” The men exited the tent. Mackey has not spoken to them since.
Both Mackey and Capriotti were at the Flotrack Throwdown in Portland on August 9. Mackey said that he saw Capriotti at the meet from a distance and that Capriotti motioned for him to come over but that the two did not speak.
In his role as global director of athletics, Capriotti determines where Nike’s sponsorship dollars go in the world of track and field. He has final say on Nike’s sponsorship negotiations with athlete agents, USATF and professional track meets. The VIP area overlooking the 1500-meter start at Hayward Field, where many Nike executives and their guests sit during the Olympic Trials and USATF Championships, is named “Cap’s Corner” after Capriotti.
“I would say it’s safe to say John Capriotti’s the most powerful figure in the sport,” said a witness to the incident at USAs.
To this day, Mackey does not understand why Capriotti confronted him.
“He brought up an agent’s name when he was yelling at me,” said Mackey. “I asked that agent, ‘Did I ever bring John’s name up or Nike?’ and he said no.”
At the time, both Nike and Brooks were recruiting the same female athlete, and several sources believe Mackey’s recruitment of the athlete was the source of Capriotti’s rage.
“I asked the athlete, who I assumed it was, and she doesn’t even know who John Capriotti is,” Mackey said. “I’m friends with Jerry Schumacher (coach of Nike’s Bowerman Track Club) and Mark Rowland (coach of Nike’s Oregon Track Club). When I go to Beijing, I’ll be hanging out with Jerry. I actually really like Nike and have a lot of respect for them. I would never negatively recruit anyway, it’s just not my style.”
Mackey did not want to name the agent or the athlete to avoid involving them in the story and possibly drawing the wrath of Capriotti and Nike.
Another possibility is that Capriotti may have been under stress following the doping allegations against Salazar and the NOP. Mackey worked in Nike’s sports research lab as a researcher from 2007 to 2010. When asked whether he came across data involving Salazar or the Nike Oregon Project, Mackey said “no comment.”
The three witnesses LetsRun.com spoke to said that the episode in the medical tent was far from an ordinary occurrence.
“I’ve been to a lot of meets. A lot…I probably do 15-20 jobs a year where I’m working with elite athletes in the sport and I’ve never seen anything like that,” said a witness. “To me, track and field feels like a bubble…If I reacted like that to someone I work with or a competitor, I would lose my job.”
Leer characterized the whole episode as unprofessional, particularly because of where the incident took place. Leer was upset and disappointed after failing to make the 1500 final and said there is no reason Capriotti should have confronted Mackey in the medical tent, in the presence of athletes who were either preparing for or just finishing up competition.
“If they had a grievance, I’d like to think it would be taken care of in a fashion other than good old-fashioned bully tactics and more professionally,” Leer said. “What struck me and left a sour taste in my mouth was seeing this take place in the athlete warmup area. There’s a thousand different ways in which you tell someone you don’t like what they’re doing. And this just seemed like the least professional and least productive manner of getting this done.”
Mackey did not run into Capriotti again at the championships and said that he didn’t have any difficulties for the rest of the meet, though he did fear for his safety based on Capriotti’s threats.
“It was a distraction,” Mackey said. “It’s just such a negative thing out of nowhere. It didn’t affect my effectiveness coaching, but me personally, yeah, [it affected me].”
Not all of Mackey’s athletes knew about the incident at USAs, and not wanting to turn it into a bigger distraction than it already was, Mackey waited until the championships were over to say anything to the police. On July 1, he spoke to UOPD officer John Loos and gave a brief description of events. Loos offered Mackey two options: he could file a police report to make note of the incident, or he could pursue criminal charges (which would also require filing a police report). Mackey initially declined to file any report, but after speaking to his employers at Brooks and some friends within the sport, Mackey concluded that because there had been so many witnesses and Brooks already knew about the incident, it made sense to file a police report. He stopped short of pursuing criminal charges, however, and elected to delay filing the report until July 18, the day after the Monaco Diamond League meet.
“Monaco is a Nike meet,” Mackey said. “I was going to be travelling by myself in Europe so I was a little bit worried about my safety.
“Once I made a decision, I was like, ‘Look I’m just gonna go for the lesser of it because I didn’t want to antagonize — even though I have every right to do that — I didn’t want to provoke Capriotti more. Because if I file a criminal charge, I have to go to Oregon, go through the court system. I don’t have the bandwidth to really handle that and be a one-man show with my athletes [that I coach].”
This is not the first time Capriotti has threatened someone within the sport, according to our sources. Every source interviewed for this story stated that they had either been threatened by Capriotti themselves or heard of others being threatened, but several of the sources chose to remain anonymous and not share specific anecdotes out of fear of what Capriotti could do to their careers.
“I’ve heard so many accounts of athletes, agents and meet directors getting treated like absolute dogshit,” said a source who works in the running industry with elite athletes. “I kind of wish all the agents would band together and say something…but because of the stranglehold he has on people’s paychecks, people won’t talk.”
“[Capriotti’s behavior at USAs] was not safe and it’s not smart,” said another source who works with athletes sponsored by shoe companies other than Nike. “He’s done this to a lot of people and everyone’s scared to say anything.”
“Someone who used to work at Nike kind of came up with the analogy that they operate like the mafia,” said a third source who has dealt with Nike in the past. “They will use any kind of pressure they can to get what they want. I’m not saying it’s anything illegal but using any kind of leverage they have.”
Indeed, Nike pours more money into the sport than anyone else. In Oregon alone, Nike sponsors three high-profile teams — the Nike Oregon Project, Bowerman Track Club and the Oregon Track Club. Nike also has a sponsorship deal that pays USATF approximately $20 million per year through 2040 for the right to produce the Team USA jersey.
“I would say that whoever is in [Capriotti’s office] is a very, very powerful figure in track and field because they control so many dollars in the sport,” said Nick Symmonds, who is sponsored by Brooks (and was sponsored by Nike for eight years). “Having that kind of control is powerful. I don’t know what [Capriotti] was referring to when he makes threats. I’m not sure why he does that or what background he has to be able to do that, but Nike’s a powerful corporation. Very powerful.”
“There’s a few others that work under Cap that behave similarly and it seems like that’s the corporate mentality. I don’t know that the bullying is unique to John Capriotti.”
In April 2006, Justin Gatlin failed a doping test at the Kansas Relays, testing positive for “testosterone or its precursors.” Gatlin’s coach at the time, Trevor Graham, claimed that Gatlin had been sabotaged by masseur Chris Whetstine. Two months later, at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Indianapolis, Whetstine went to the hospital with a broken nose, a dislocated thumb, a sprained ankle and a concussion. Whetstine said that Llewellyn Starks beat him up on the night of June 22, 2006, and sued both Starks and Nike for $3.9 million for the debilitating injuries he suffered that night. The two parties settled the lawsuit in 2009. Details of the settlement were not disclosed.
“I respect that they want to protect their athletes but [the Capriotti-Mackey incident] didn’t seem to me to be a case of protecting their athletes, this seemed to be a case of ego-driven chauvinism and proving manliness,” said a witness. “I still can’t really understand why someone would say things like this and act that way publicly. There were hundreds of people around.
“But in the world of track and field … who’s gonna levy any sanctions or get that person in trouble? Well there isn’t anyone bigger [than Nike] and they write all the checks for USATF. They can … do whatever they want. (T)he bigger issue that I see is … they’ve gained so much power. And at some point … [there] needs to be checks and balances — something that takes that power away and makes them a little more accountable for how they operate.”
LetsRun.com put in multiple interview requests for Capriotti, Starks, Cesar and Lotwis through Nike media, who declined to make any of them available for an interview.
Discuss this article on our messageboard: MB: Nike’s Global Director of Athletics John Capriotti Threatened To Kill Brooks Beasts Head Coach Danny Mackey At 2015 USAs.