Wednesday, September 26, 2012

5 Important Steps for the Track and Field Union

"I'd like to thanks my sponsor underneath this tape"
(Photo: TrackAndFieldPhoto)
After a brief, post-Olympic hiatus, I'm back. Lots to talk about with the cross country season now in full swing and the talk of track and field unionizing. This opinion piece is the byproduct of 32 ounces of dark roast Blue State Coffee and a true desire to help the sport thrive now, and in the future. Note: I am a supporting member of TFAA.

If you had't heard yet, Track and Field is unionizing. This has been brewing for a few years with the development of the Track and Field Athletes Association aka TFAA. What started as a small group of enthusiasts, has gained some major traction with the endorsement and membership of the biggest name in the sport, Usain Bolt. Now is the time to really push the agenda to truly professionalize the sport and give the athletes more ownership of their earning potential.

But what can they do? There's tons of ideas floating around and every athlete has different wants and needs. That in mind, these are the 5 things I think should be at the top of the agenda.

1. Make joining the union a necessity
For a union to work, everyone must be a part of it. Every player in the NFL is part of the players union. Same goes for any other major sport. This must be the same for track and field. You must have a united front to bargain with USATF, the IAAF and the IOC. If everyone is acting on their own, nothing will change. A united union must stand together and act as the only pool of athletes that the Diamond League can select from. Rogue athletes must be treated like scabs. Why so harsh you might ask? Go to #2.

2. Implement a stronger international drug testing pool
Aside from cycling, track and field comes under the most scrutiny for drug use. Just watch the Olympics and you'll see athletes come out of nowhere every four years, win medals, then never be heard from again. To thrive, the sport must police itself. A union must strengthen the relationship with WADA, USADA (in the US) and the national anti-doping organizations from every nation that has members in the union. The rules must be strict and must include every level of testing that is available (biological passport, human growth test, etc). Every athlete must back this force meet directors to shun those who choose not to participate in the necessary testing.

Lets make these OK to wear in a Diamond League meet
3. Get sponsor rules changed
For athletes to thrive, the rules must change so that they can make a living; not just get by. I spoke with Matt Scherer outside of the Wild Duck Cafe at the Olympic Trials and noticed he was wearing a Picky Bars sweatband. Five feet away was Lauren Fleshman. So I pulled them together and asked, "why not wear a Picky Bars singlet while your racing?" That turned into "you've gotta get Picky Bars approved as a club with USATF, then it can only go in the upper right hand corner of the singlet." Why can't Picky Bars or say, McDonald's or Subway be a title sponsor. Or dare I say Budweiser or New Belgium; a beer company with major ties to cycling. Lead sponsors should not be limited to shoe companies. If Nike or Adidas want to sign an athlete to an exclusive contract, that's great! But the union should agree upon a multi-spot sponsor design and present it to USATF nationally and the IAAF internationally. An example of a multi-spot sponsor could be logos the center of the singlet, the upper left hand corner (as the upper right is reserved for club affiliation), the back of the singlet and then any shoulder temporary tattoos or sweat/headbands. I am not tied to any particular arrangement, but this is something that should be agreed upon and presented before the 2013 outdoor season. Think PGA more so than NASCAR.

4. Force the IOC's hand for the 2016 Olympics
If track and field comes as a united front, they can overturn rule #40, or at least change it to better accommodate the athletes. Track and field is arguably the centerpiece of Olympic competition and the athletes should be able to profit. The Olympics is 10 to 11-figure business and the athletes get almost nothing. This isn't 1912, or even 1984 for that matter. If getting paid is too much to ask, athletes should be able to promote their sponsors during the Olympics. That is why companies sponsor athletes that compete in "Olympic Sports." You must provide them some return on investment or they won't invest during those other four years. This is where Usain Bolt's leverage will help, as he has been the star of the past two Olympiads and certainly will be a focal point in Rio. Is the IOC going to turn him away? I doubt it.

5. Develop the Track Club system in an organized manner
When the Oregon Track Club was performing so well at the 2008 Olympic Trials, everyone wanted OTC gear. Shirts, singlets, warmups, etc. They are and excellent example of a well developed club with a well developed brand. The Oregon Project is starting to do the same. I keep waiting for Jerry Schumacher's group to officially brand itself "Rip City TC." Everyone in the union should join a club if they aren't on one already. It's an excellent marketing tool and almost demands that the IAAF allow that upper right hand logo. Remember how cool the Santa Monica Track Club was? MVP Track Club should have the same brand identity. They've got the two top sprinters in the world! I've never even seen a logo. The union could develop and promote international club championships where athletes only wear specially designed club gear. Those would be big bragging rights that would certainly entice TV outlets.

While I know these things won't happen overnight, I am hopeful. Things are materializing. If you need any help Khadevis, or want me to sit on a board, I'm here for you. I'll be happen to elaborate on any of these points in long form, just email me.

And with all this in mind, any step forward is a positive step, so lets get moving!

UPDATE: I went on The Runaround on ESPN Radio Baltimore on 10/1 with TFAA President, Khadevis Robinson, to discuss the union. Listen to the recording here.

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  1. You make a lot of great points. I believe KD was quoted as saying that they were not forming in order to (ever) strike.

    Taking away the threat or ability to walk out or strike...essentially neuters a union or association.

    For 100 years the powers behind the scenes have been shameless lining their pockets off the performances of the athletes...first amateur, and then professional...with the most chaotic professional schema in sport.

    It is way beyond time to get real. There may be a way to get a uniform drug testing system via the TFAA... There also needs to be a system created for Olympic Track Athletes to be paid/rewarded. Compensation for making the semi-finals, finals, and monetary awards by place in the finals.

    It's great that Usain Bolt has signed on; he's talked about wanting to be a legend, well this how he can become a legend...become the powerful de facto leader of the union in order to create change and force the powers that be to pay the athletes fairly.

    Also, the athletes, especially in the USA need to do a better job of educating the public... Take a look at the forum comments on the TFAA stories on say...USA Today...far too many comments along the lines of "If competing for your country isn't enough for you, to hell with you." --That shows that your every 4 years audience is completely ignorant of the realities. Think about it, if the USA TF athletes didn't shoulder their costs almost by themselves, the USA wouldn't have had nearly 30 medals. If they all just decided to quietly stop...and we won Zero medals on 2016...these same uneducated "every four years fans" would be angry and want to see heads roll somewhere. The sad fact is the public is the point of being dumb, and yet sit there like spoiled children in front of their TV's expecting results every 4 years...while never giving a thought as to how each sport and athlete gets financed.

    This is a very rough analogy; if Usain Bolt really wants to be a legend, let him become the Nelson Mandella of Athletics... Bring the Olympics out of the dark ages and create fair pay for these athletes. As we know that athletes in many countries are well supported with government funds, and amazing financial rewards if successful -- it's like winning the lottery in some countries, instant fame, wealth, and you are set for life. In the USA it is a rare few that that happens to...gymnasts, a swimmer...and not to track athletes any longer.

  2. Saying that unionizing track ans field would do deep and lasting harm to our sport...and then not really giving any cogent or intelligently argued reasons why...makes no sense.

    Of all the professional athletes in the world these are the poorest paid, poorest the point of insanity.

    Many have made the analogy of these athletes to race car drivers. It is apt. I recently met with an Indy car driver and talked with him about how he makes it.

    He is essentially his own business, and must raise all his own sponsors, every year, or he cannot afford to race.

    Track athletes must essentially raise all their own money, and gain sponsors, every year, or they cannot afford to race.

    The difference is, track athletes have numerous governing bodies telling them they can't support their sponsors in return for sponsorship.

    That's crazy.

    What is also crazy is Khadevis saying they aren't going to have the power to strike.

    KD: power is something that is Taken not Given. How do you think things got this way in the first place.

    You guys need to unionize, get your demands in order, present them as requirements moving forward, or the athletes will sit out a DL/WC season.

    If you really think all those old farts in the the 5 star hotels at all the DL and WC meets are going to give you more power to earn a living against their own interests in making easy money off you're nuts. Old habits die hard, and when the ego's are involved that you are dealing with are involved, you'll be handed scraps.

    You need to get it together, the way things are going to be in the future, and Require it, or the TFAA athletes don't compete.

    It's that simple.

    You should be allowed 3 additional logos on your uniforms, in addition to your shoe company, and maybe even more on your warm ups, and freedom to support your sponsors at Olympic games.

    Prediction: if you ask for it, you won't get it. If you ask for small changes, you might get it. Asking for small changes, is still playing to the old guard. The athletes have been the poorest represented and poorest compensated in any sport for over a century. And these athletes are the core of the biggest sporting event every 4 years?

    TFAA needs to Think Bigger. Think IDEALLY. What would ideally best support the athletes as true professionals with the same level of respect pro athletes get in other sports that are analogous? Start from an ideal frame. Fully empower yourselves - stop acting like children in school and asking permission for small changes. Think bigger, unionize, implement the changes to uniforms and sponsorship rules within your union/organization and TELL the DL/OG if you want our athletes to participate; here is how we come, take it or leave it.

    You've got to take the power. Just make sure the uniforms look good. The public will go along.

  3. How many talented college athletes didn't run pro after reading the stories of the pro athletes they admire? I wasn't handing over my retirement fund to help my child run pro when times got tight (I didn't support running pro based on salary potential, now has GREAT job)!!! Personally NO union has ever done anything for me. I always got more done on my own. THEIR agenda clashed with MINE! Good luck T&F athletes!!!

  4. Great ideas. As for the Club idea, think Cycling Teams with multi-sponsors that include clothing brands, bicycles/components,etc. as well as major corporate sponsors. Anyone ever think of approaching Bob Stapleton about organizing a team/club? He organized and got sponsorship for two major cycling teams, one of which was the number one pro cycling team in the world. Guys like that have the know-how and clout to organize pro T&F teams with corporate sponsorship. Fans are tired of watching meets where everyone in the race is wearing one of two or three identical, adidas, saucony, etc.