John Capriotti – “The Most Powerful Man in Track” – Is Stepping Down at Nike; What Does It Mean for the Sport?
By Jonathan Gault
September 21, 2020
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John Capriotti, whom many insiders refer to as “the most powerful man in track & field,” is retiring from his role as global director of sports marketing for track and field at Nike. The Oregonian first reported the news on Friday. Capriotti, who has worked at Nike since 1992, controls Nike’s nine-figure track & field marketing budget, which he has used to sponsor athletes, elite teams, meets, and national federations including USATF, which in 2014 agreed to a 23-year sponsorship deal with Nike worth an estimated $400 million. No company puts more money into the sport or sponsors more athletes. According 2019 article on the website of Cal Poly University, Capriotti’s alma mater, athletes signed by Capriotti have won over 350 individual track & field Olympic medals, over 700 World Championship medals, and over 600 big city marathons.
“[Nike] keeps the sport alive,” said one agent, who asked to remain anonymous.
Capriotti will reportedly move into a consultancy role, where Nike could be among his clients.
“John Capriotti has retired from Nike but will consult and continue to play an important role in our relationship with athletes,” a Nike spokesperson wrote in an email to LetsRun.com.
Capriotti’s departure is the latest shakeup in what has been a year of change for the sportswear giant. In January, John Donahoe succeeded Mark Parker after 14 years as Nike’s CEO. In July, the company announced it was laying off more than 500 employees at its Beaverton, Ore., headquarters and restructuring its corporate leadership. And recently, Tim Phelan, who had worked in Nike sports marketing for over 20 years and was close to Capriotti, was fired.
2019 was also a turbulent year for Nike’s running division. First, it came under fire for its lack of protection for athletes who became pregnant. Then in September, coach Alberto Salazar of the Nike Oregon Project was handed a four-year ban from track & field by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for multiple anti-doping violations (Salazar has vigorously defended his innocence, and spent years fighting the charges, with Nike paying for his defense. His appeal will be heard by Court of Arbitration for Sport in November). In November 2019, Mary Cain and others alleged Salazar was responsible for a culture of bullying and body shaming during her time at NOP.
A Nike spokesperson said Capriotti’s exit was unrelated to Salazar and NOP (which was shuttered in October 2019). Capriotti, through Nike, declined an interview request.
It is unclear who will succeed Capriotti (shown at the 2018 Monaco Diamond League, far left) at Nike. A Nike spokesperson said executive vice president, Global Sports Marketing John Slusher — whom Capriotti reported to — will remain in place, but was vague when asked about Capriotti’s successor, instead pointing toward a July press release trumpeting Nike’s decision to streamline its corporate leadership team.
“That process continues as we build a flatter, nimbler company and transform Nike faster to define the marketplace of the future,” the spokesperson wrote.
As a result, Capriotti’s exit could represent a pivotal moment for Nike running — and for the sport at large. Capriotti’s cutthroat style has drawn its share of critics; he was known as a tough negotiator, and someone who would go to any length to preserve Nike’s dominance on the track. But few contest his devotion to the sport.
“He’s fought for a huge support and investment into the sport from his company standpoint,” says veteran agent Ray Flynn. “And if he were not to be in that role, I would hope that it didn’t signal a downturn in terms of [Nike’s] commitment. People in his role are in competition with all sports for marketing dollars. So it’s not just about track & field, it’s about all of the other sports that are demanding [money from Nike].”
As a result, the departure of Capriotti (and Parker, who is also a running fan*) has created a degree of uncertainty in the running community; some wonder whether Capriotti’s departure might be a sign that Nike will be less committed to supporting track and field moving forward. As one mesageboard poster wrote on the LetsRun.com forum, “I fear that this heralds a deprioritization of track and field by Nike brass…[This] is not a good sign, it shows that the culture at Nike is no longer that of athletes, it’s now just a bunch of MBAs. Unfortunate.”
*Update: A Nike spokesperson emailed LetsRun to state that while Parker is no longer CEO, he remains at Nike as Executive Chairman “and has continued to be involved with the company.”
Not everyone shares that same degree of concern given Nike founder Phil Knight‘s long history of investment in track & field.
“I think as long as Phil Knight is around, Nike will support the sport,” the anonymous agent says. “But John was well-positioned to fight for those dollars. If John goes, I don’t know if [Nike’s support] will change. But if Phil Knight goes, I think that will change significantly.”
Knight is 82 years old.
One pro coach, however, believes Capriotti’s involvement has hurt the sport.
“There’s opportunities that, because of his approach, which I have always thought of as ‘I’m gonna control 100% of the sport in any way possible’ — a win-at-all costs mindset — it’s hurt marketing dollars,” says the coach, who also requested anonymity. “Because you’ve had other companies that would gladly want to sponsor track & field and be involved and they can’t because Nike and Capriotti pull a lot of the strings where they wouldn’t allow non-endemic or non-apparel sponsors.”
Success on the track, controversy off of it
Capriotti came to Nike in 1992, where he followed Steve Miller, with whom he has shared a close relationship for over half a century. Miller first coached Capriotti as a middle schooler, and continued to coach him in high school and college at Cal Poly. Miller eventually became the athletic director at Kansas State, where he hired Capriotti as track coach in 1986. Capriotti quit the Kansas State job in 1992; it later emerged he had paid a number of athletes, which ultimately resulted in the NCAA handing Kansas State a postseason ban and scholarship reduction. Capriotti admitted the violations in 1993 to the Wichita Eagle.
During Capriotti’s tenure in sports marketing, Nike athletes achieved unrivaled success on the track, and he oversaw the establishment of several high-powered training groups, including the Oregon Project and the Bowerman Track Club, which pushed American distance running to new levels and inspired a generation of young runners. But under Capriotti, the sports marketing department has also operated in ways that have led several observers to compare them to the mafia.
During the week of the USATF Outdoor Championships in Indianapolis in 2006, massage therapist Chris Whetstine went to the hospital with a broken nose, a dislocated thumb, a sprained ankle and a concussion after a fight with Llewellyn Starks, one of Capriotti’s employees. Just two months earlier, Nike-sponsored sprinter Justin Gatlin had failed a doping test at the Kansas Relays; his coach, Trevor Graham, claimed Whetstine had sabotaged Gatlin. Whetstine later sued Starks and Nike for $3.9 million; the parties agreed to an undisclosed settlement in 2009. Nike said Capriotti was not present at the fight. Starks still works for Nike.
Six years later, Capriotti allegedely threatened to kill Brooks Beasts head coach Danny Mackey, as part of an aggressive confrontation at the USATF Outdoor Championships in Eugene. No charges were filed in that incident.
“I really liked working with him,” said the agent, “but I could see that type of quick-to-anger [attitude] at times didn’t serve him well. But I always found him to be fair and helpful. I liked working with him, but if you step back, do I think what Danny Mackey was saying was honest and truthful? 100%.”
Opinions are split about whether Capriotti’s departure is good or bad for the sport of track & field. Upon hearing the news, Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergesen tweeted “his reign was defined by exploiting pro women athletes who became pregnant, and abusive contract maneuvers to pro runners of all kinds. May T&F start healing and see better days.”
Kara Goucher, who ran for Capriotti under Nike and later Oiselle under Bergesen, responded with, “Remember when he said he was going to buy Oiselle and then bring us in and fire us to watch us cry? I do.”
The anonymous coach that spoke with LetsRun.com also believes Capriotti’s exit is unequivocally good news.
“I think probably nine separate people texted me [after hearing the news], all different walks of life involved in the sport, their income comes from it,” the coach says. “And everybody was happy about [Capriotti leaving].”
Not everyone agrees, however. Flynn says he disagrees with the “mafia” characterization. Someone with the power of Capriotti’s position will always have to make tough decisions and his task — keeping Nike on top of the running world — is not an easy one.
“It’s a tough business,” Flynn says. “You’re in competition with all the other sports the company supports, you’re in competition with all the other companies. Whether it be Capriotti or whether it be any of the other key people in those roles, they are just doing their best. It’s not a straightforward business. It’s hard and difficult at the best of times.”
The anonymous agent says that, first and foremost, Capriotti should be remembered for fighting to support the sport. But he acknowledges that Capriotti could have had a bigger impact in one specific area.
“I think one of the flaws would be not being as proactive in weeding out the cheaters in the sport,” the agent says. “I think with drug use, he could have done a lot more. Because he did nothing. Some would say that’s not his job. But if you love the sport and you’ve seen clearly that people are cheating, how are you going to go on?”
Because Nike sponsors hundreds of athletes, significantly more than every other company, it is inevitable that some of its athletes will get popped for doping. But Capriotti’s critics contend that, had he sent a firmer message that doping was not to be tolerated at Nike — specifically by removing funding from athletes or coaches linked to performance-enhancing drugs or preventing them from competing at Nike-sponsored events — then doping would not be as big a problem as it is in the sport.
Instead, Capriotti largely ignored the issue. If an athlete, agent or coach was producing medals, Nike would support them.
Under Capriotti’s watch, Nike initially dropped Justin Gatlin when he was handed a four-year doping ban in 2006. Gatlin returned to the sport in 2010, and Nike re-signed him in 2015. He has since won seven medals between the World Championships and Olympics.
“You don’t need Justin Gatlin,” the agent says. “You just don’t need him. When Gatlin stepped on the track in Rio, everyone was booing. Why would you have him? It doesn’t make any sense. When [Nike] makes that decision to bring [convicted dopers] back, you’re not part of the solution.”
Nike has also sponsored Gatlin’s coach, Dennis Mitchell, who served a ban for testosterone during his own career, and has continued to send its top young sprinters, such as Sha’Carri Richardson and Kenny Bednarek, to train under Mitchell, even after the coach was filmed saying he could provide testosterone to an undercover reporter in 2017.
“Why pay [Mitchell]?” the coach says. “There’s not another man or woman in this fucking country that knows how to coach sprinting? You want a guy that’s doped? You want coach doing that, a coach who is super influential over what athletes do?”
Under Capriotti, Nike has also continued to support Italian agent Federico Rosa, who has represented a number of the sports highest-profile cheaters, including Rita Jeptoo, Jemima Sumgong, and Asbel Kiprop. Rosa’s athletes even get a special variation of the company’s pro singlets to wear in competitions. And of course, Nike continues to support Salazar throughout his appeal.
Agent Mark Block, who was banned for the sport for 10 years in 2009, was seen in the Nike VIP hospitality suite (known as Cap’s Corner) at both the 2011 Worlds and 2012 US Olympic Trials.
“The thing with Nike and Cap that’s always been interesting is, they’re going to win anyways,” the coach says. “He’s got the biggest budget. And if there’s clean sport, it plays to his advantage, because more people will think positively of track & field, and Nike still wins. They have the coolest product, they do the coolest marketing stuff.
“Doing things in the best interest of the sport is going to help the biggest brand in the sport. And I don’t think he ever got that. Or he didn’t want to get it because he wanted to dominate.”
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