Everything You Need to Know from the 2016 USATF Convention

by Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
December 7, 2016

The United States Track and Field (USATF) Convention was this past week in Orlando, and I’m still trying to make sense of it. It was my first USATF Convention and to say the least it was a bit overwhelming. There were over 1,000 people in attendance, most of them delegates from the various USATF groups or associations, and at any given time there often were 10 or 20 different meetings going on, some with published agendas, others without.

The biggest news to come out of Orlando was that TrackTown USA (the group in Eugene responsible for bringing the 2016 World Indoors to Portland and the 2021 World Championships to Eugene) President Vin Lananna will be the new President of USATF, after the only candidate running against him, Olympic legend Jackie Joyner-Kersee, withdrew her candidacy. The other big news of note is the 15-member USATF Board, which is responsible for overseeing the entire organization and its paid CEO, Max Siegel, will have five new members on it (athletes Lauren Fleshman and Ryan Wilson, former triple jump star and now sports agent Mike Conley, official Len Krsak and Lananna).

Below I present my eight big takeaways for people not at the annual convention.

1. There Is Hope and Optimism for the Future of USATF and Track and Field in the US 

For the first time that I can ever remember, people are expressing optimism about the future of USATF. In the past, USATF has been known for financial difficulties and/or internal squabbles.

These tweets below by Diamond League winner Katie Mackey and World 50k champion Camille Herron sum up the views of many athletes at the convention.

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The hope is with a new President and fresh faces on the board, USATF can start going in a more positive direction.

If you know about some of USATF’s dysfunction you can skip to point #2, but if you need a primer on where USATF is currently and why the tide needed to turn, keep reading.

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Vin Lananna Campaign Pins Vin Lananna Campaign Pins

On the positive side, under the leadership of current CEO Max Siegel, USATF’s revenues have more than doubled from under $17 million in 2008 to a projected $40 million next year. Otherwise, the picture has not been pretty and much of the blame starts with the USATF Board. The Board of Directors has failed in its oversight role of the CEO and approved travel perks inappropriate for a non-profit, agreed to pay a $23.75 million commission payment, has ignored the desires of USATF members, and allowed the national office to disregard USATF regulations and appoint a convicted doper as the US Olympic relays coach, all the while not having an Ethics Committee in place to keep an eye on the Board. The Board has come up short in terms of non-profit corporate governance and transparency.

Siegel himself was a Board member before becoming CEO, so when the President’s election came down to a current board member, Joyner-Kersee, versus Lananna, the election for President was of the utmost importance. One US pro told me he came to the convention to make sure “a Trump didn’t happen” and by that he meant a surprise win by Joyner-Kersee.

Lananna’s record is far from perfect when it comes to transparency with the Worlds bid and the University of Oregon, but we at LetsRun.com joke that Lananna is the only guy in track and field in America who actually gets shit done (his teams at Dartmouth, Stanford and Oregon were very successful, then he turned Eugene into Track Town USA and pulled off the improbable and brought Worlds to the United States). The election was viewed by many as more of the same vs. change for the better and fortunately the change for the better came out on top.

Individually many on the current board are respected, but clearly the group dynamic has been more than a little off. How the Board ever thought private jet travel and a $23 million commission was acceptable for a non-profit is beyond our comprehension. A doubling of the revenues doesn’t change that. The hope now is with new Board members and a new President that dynamic can change and USATF, which is in a strong financial situation, can succeed in all areas.

2. I Finally Understand Why Vin Lananna Wants to be President – It’s About Building a Lasting Legacy in the US Around the World Championships

One question I kept asking at the convention was why did Vin want to be President? It’s an unpaid role that will cost Lananna money (Lananna said he will give up his Nike consulting job to limit conflicts of interest) in an organization known for dysfunction. Why would the guy who has been super successful in the sport outside of USATF now want to get involved with its internal dysfunction (especially when it’s rumored Lananna could have had the USATF CEO job previously)?

At the closing ceremonies, Lananna specifically addressed why he wanted to be President saying, “Why did I actually run for office at this time? It’s because I’m optimistic, I’m optimistic about progress we’ve made…. It’s really about an exciting and optimistic future.”

That’s way too generic for me.

Lananna was more revealing when he spoke before the High Performance Committee.

“We have every reason in the world to be optimistic. I’m really optimistic about what we have going forward. I want to talk about a line in the sand. In 2021 we have the opportunity to really do something special when we host the World Championships in the United States for the first time. The lead-up between now and 2021 is so important. If we just have a track meet in August 2021 and bring the world in and no doubt the US will have all these great performances – if we do not capitalize on both the front end and back end of that, we will have missed a golden opportunity.”

It all clicked when I heard him say that. For Worlds to leave a lasting legacy in the US, it needs a successful build-up and back end, and that can best happen with the support of a highly functional USATF.

Max Siegel at State of Sport Speech Max Siegel at State of Sport Speech

3. The Financial Pie Has Gotten Bigger, BUT, As a Result, More People Want a Piece

In 2008, USATF had just under $17 million in revenue. It’s projected to have $40 million next year. Athletes have been more outspoken of late that they are not getting their fair share. Siegel, in his State of the Sport speech, went to great lengths to try to be transparent and show all the outlays USATF sends to athletes, noting that athletes received more than $14 million in “publicly traceable support sources” in 2016. (You can find the details here). The doubling of revenue is nice, but $14 million for all the track athletes in America is, even by Max’s own admission, not that impressive a sum. 44 NFL players, 64 NBA players, and 74 MLB players make $14 million or more by themselves every year.

The point here is not to debate what the amount of cash outlays should be to athletes (I think way more than the $14 million), but to note that even with revenue more than doubling everyone is fighting over a relatively small pool of money for a “professional” sport.

Thus unless the revenue keeps growing and growing, money from one group is going to come at the expense of another. That is why some of the questionable spending policies outlined in the Washington Post exposé ($23 million commission, first class air travel, USATF execs staying at luxury hotels while athletes stay at standard hotels) were so troubling. Everything from a first class upgrade, to the hundreds of thousands presumably being spent in the lawsuit versus the former Youth Committee members, to the $23 million commission, is money that instead could go to athletes.

Speaking of the Washington Post article, I’ve had a lot of people ask me what was done about it at the Convention – nothing from what I know. The Athletes Advisory Committee (AAC) had a very limited Q&A with Max Siegel and Board chairman Steve Miller and none of the athletes asked about it.

4. You Should Feel Good About The New Board Members

The current board often exhibits a terrible demonstration of groupthink and looking after their own (case in point, Board member Eve Dennis went to emeritus status and Joyner-Kersee was given the remaining two years on Dennis’ term).

I have a lot of hope that the new Board members will be much better. You already know about Lananna. Lauren Fleshman is an outspoken athlete advocate and wasn’t timid at her first Board meeting, using the opportunity to discuss any new business to update the Board about the problems at the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) and how the athletes are backing the Copenhagen anti-doping reforms. I didn’t know much about Ryan Wilson before this weekend (in addition to being a world class hurdler himself, he coaches Olympic silver medallist Nia Ali), but was impressed the first time I heard him speak at the AAC meeting and every time after that.  Then before the Board meeting went into closed session, I introduced myself to Wilson and we were talking about the IAAF reforms and he noted how having the President appoint people to Commissions instead of electing people to Committees as was done in the past, could have the unintended consequence of concentrating too much power with the President. The point being Wilson is willing to challenge standard convention and think outside the box. Len Krsak, the USATF official on the Board, reminded everyone that he doesn’t represent just the officials on the Board but that he serves the greater good of USATF (Chairman Steve Miller was stressing which constituency elected the various board members and also was saying all weekend that if people had complaints to the Board they shouldn’t complain to him, but to their representative to the board). Mike Conley is not only a successful NBA agent who thus doesn’t need any of the trappings that come with being on a sports board, but he’s shown in the past with the Dennis Mitchell coaching controversy that he is in favor of more transparency and discussion from USATF.

5. The Athletes Are Pissed Off Enough About The Drug Testing in Rio to Possibly Make Some Changes

I missed the meeting where US Anti Doping head Travis Tygart addressed the athletes and told them about the problems with the drug testing in Rio, and the need via the Copenhagen Reforms to sever WADA officials from also being officials with the International Olympic Committee or an international federation.

When asked at the Long Distance Running meeting what the meeting with Tygart was about, I did hear US long distance pro Will Leer say, “How disgusting the drug testing was in Rio.” The AAC then started a petition to back the Copenhagen reforms at WADA. A consequence of the Copenhagen reforms is WADA head Craig Reedie would have to resign (or resign his role within the IOC).

This past June LetsRun.com said Reedie should resign because it was clear his #1 priority is not getting doping out of sport. We then started a petition at the start of the Olympics in August asking for Reedie’s resignation. While it got a little traction (1000+ signatures with a few coming from pro track athletes), that was the wrong time of year to get the support of the athletes. The hope now is the athletes can express their concern and get Reedie out of his job. The Copenhagen reforms need to pass for structural reasons. Regardless of them, when the drug testing at the Olympics is botched, at the very least the head of the World Anti Doping Agency needs to go.

Police keeping 85 year old Dorothy Dawson (she's suspended) from closing session Police keeping 85-year-old Dorothy Dawson (she’s suspended) from closing session. Dawson said she attended opening session.

6. There Was A Heavy Security Presence At The Convention

One negative this year was the heavy USATF security presence. The entire Youth Executive Committee was suspended from USATF without a hearing this past summer and then USATF filed a lawsuit against them in federal court. All of those proceedings are still ongoing, but as a result the suspended members are not allowed at USATF meetings, and there was USATF security at many of the Youth meetings to keep the suspended members (some of who were in Orlando) from trying to get in.  At the closing session, the local police were there as well to prevent the suspended people from entering. Guests had been allowed at previous annual closing sessions from people I spoke to, but not this year.

Many members I spoke to lamented the security presence and wondered if it was necessary. Maybe it is necessary in today’s era, but most were just sad this was what the organization had descended into. Couldn’t people just disagree without the need for physical security? Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon founder Tracy Sundlun noted his dad was governor of Rhode Island in the 1990s, and yet only had one security officer with him. Considering USATF has a full-time director of security, expect to start seeing more security at USATF events.

7. If You Want Change At USATF, Start Going To The Annual Meeting (Or Influence The People Voting There)

Change within USATF starts with the people elected at the annual meeting. The only way to vote for someone is to actually go to the annual meeting as a delegate.

Lauren Fleshman was known as being an activist within the sport and at times a critic of some of the actions of USATF. Yet she had never been to a USATF annual meeting until she was talked into going three years ago by (updated) Ann Gaffigan. Now Fleshman has a seat on the USATF board and hopefully can shape the organization in a more athlete-central way.

My impression is the athletes are becoming more aware of the fact that they have direct power within USATF (via the AAC and their two Board seats), and also that they can influence others at the Convention. I witnessed the athletes rounding each other up to go vote on non-athlete-specific matters.

8. The Board Is Aware Of Its Critics – Can It Work Constructively With Some Of Them?

All week, starting with the opening ceremonies. USATF Board Chair Steve Miller made it be known with salty language that he doesn’t care what people think of him.

On that front, I would say, “He doth protest too much.”

On two separate occasions, I heard Miller say this weekend something along the lines of, “People forget I was on the Board of Brooks,” so clearly he is well aware that many feel USATF is in the pocket of Nike and he is trying to dampen that belief. The reported $500 million Nike-USATF sponsorship deal (USATF has never released the financial figures) which was not bid out, presumably had these people in contact with one other at one point or another: Miller (Chair of USATF Board, who used to work at Nike), Siegel, John Capriotti of Nike (who used to work for Miller at both Kansas State and Nike), and the consulting firm of two former Nike executives (one of whom I think was also Capriotti’s boss at Nike) that got the $23 million commission on the deal. Oops almost forgot, I was reminded to add Craig Masback, who now works for Nike and was the former CEO of USATF.

At the final session, there was a symbolic resolution passed by the USATF members reminding the Board and CEO that they should not suspend someone without a hearing. Indirectly, it was seen as a rebuke of the Board for its decision to suspend the Youth Board members without a hearing. It was interesting that Miller, who was presiding over the closing ceremonies, came back in after the vote, and said he had been to the bathroom and didn’t know the result, that he would find out later. He pretended like he did not care, but I doubt that was the case.

The question for USATF is what happens with the new President and new Board members. The hope by many is they work with the existing Board members to nudge USATF in a more positive direction with better non-profit governance.

It was my impression that three of the four new Board members (Wilson, Fleshman, and Krsak) were treated by Miller as outsiders. Not only were they seated together (seats were assigned), sitting next to the previously lone renegade board member Curt Clausen, but Miller a few times stressed the job wasn’t easy, giving the feeling he was aware of their criticisms.

In reality, the three board members in question are outsiders because they are new to the Board and Miller. Tiny sidenote: Miller had never met Lauren Fleshman until right before the Board meeting started. Fleshman was seated next to World 50k champ Camille Herron in the audience, and Miller came up to Herron thinking she was Fleshman before being corrected. He introduced himself and Fleshman was soon sitting at the Board table.

For USATF to succeed, there can not be an “us” vs “them” mentality. As Krsak noted, all the Board members serve the greater interest of USA Track and Field. A few years ago there was the hashtag #weareUSATF, started by the USATF marketing campaign, that got turned into a rallying cry for activists. The hope out of Orlando now is the new Board, leadership and the members can now be a better #weareUSATF.

Weldon Johnson is the co-founder of LetsRun.com and ran for the US in the 10,000m at the 2003 Pan American Games. He had no idea that as a former national team member, he could have voted as an international athlete at the USATF Convention for 10 years afterwards.

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