Between the Chicago teachers’ strike and the National Hockey League lockout, this may not be the best time for a new union to go looking for good will in the court of public opinion. Even so, the Track and Field Athletes’ Association announced yesterday that they had admitted their first batch of non-American athletes as they take the next step towards being a true players’ union. Aside from the obvious questions of “Will they follow through”” and “If track athletes form a union in the woods and no one’s around, will anybody listen?” here are some things to consider about this new chapter in the professionalization of our sport. (Disclosure: I am a supporting, i.e., non-athlete, member of the TFAA and a regular contributor to the TFAA Blog).

1) Of leverage and lockouts
     Even I fell victim to the simple word association trap that pervades sports these days: Players’ union? Lockout. Players’ union? Lockout. In the last 20 years, each of the Big 4 sports has lost at least part of a season to either a strike or a lockout.
These disruptions occur when players and the league, which acts as a proxy for the collective owners, fail to reach an agreement. Because the league sets terms not just for its own operations (such as the length of the schedule and collective bargaining) but also for how the owners operate their teams (e.g., salary cap), there are several lines of dispute underlying these conflicts. The emergence of the TFAA creates a single body to represent the athletes, but there still is not a single salary source with whom the athletes will negotiate - they each will still have their own sponsors, and participate in different meets and race series.
     I’ve repeatedly advocated for the athletes to threaten a walk-out or boycott of meets that fail to adhere to basic standards of fair play and transparency (Ian Stewart, I’m looking at you). By depriving the meet directors of the world’s high caliber athletes, the quality of the meets will suffer, attendance at the meets will decline and ultimately - hopefully - the meet directors and their sponsors will have a moment of clarity when they realize that fans pay to watch top athletes compete, not to see the inside of a stadium. Meet directors hedge this risk by relying on the assumption that many fans come to a meet to watch the competition and the sport - not the athletes, per se. Our athletes are not stars, which makes them secondary to the sport. By contrast, look at attendance and apparel sales across the major sports when a team lands a star (or even when a star’s team comes to town for an away game). Star players as well as role players are inextricably linked to the identity and brand of their teams and of their sports. Not having the advantage of a team, track and field athletes have to be that much more conscious and diligent in developing their individual brand as an athlete so they can each be the person the fans are paying to see, and let their absence be felt by the fans, meet directors and sponsors if meet directors do not adequately pay for their services.
     The real show will be how the national and international governing bodies react to the first athlete to bring the weight of the TFAA to the negotiating table. Theoretically, the governing bodies are prohibited from denying a qualified athlete from participating in a national or international event (national or world championships, qualifying trials). Just as the TFAA will be a test of the athletes’ resolve, this will also be a test of how strongly the governing bodies will defend their politics, resentments and fiefdoms.

2) The adult in the room
     The TFAA’s website lists all their members, and now with the addition of non-Americans, it reads like the 21st century’s international T&F hall of fame. Up in Canada, Sidney Crosby is the face of hockey and, given his recent injury woes, may have more to lose from this season’s lockout than any other player. Still, there’s a reason why he spent most of his time standing in the back among his colleagues rather than at the podium during NHLPA press conferences. It’s the same reason why - if he was even allowed in the closed-door conference rooms - he wasn’t allowed to say much. No, it’s not his Nova Scotian accent. It’s because he’s a player, and because the players have Don Fehr.
     Fehr is the executive director of the NHLPA, and has been the voice - if not the face - of the players’ bargaining position throughout the negotiation. Before coming to the NHLPA, Fehr spent 30 years climbing from assisting counsel to executive director of the Major League Baseball Players’ Association. Just as Sidney Crosby wouldn’t want Don Fehr taking the net in the Stanley Cup Finals, the players are right to not want Sidney Crosby negotiating their percent of the revenue.
     As impressive as their individual athletic credentials are, the TFAA will be outclassed, outmatched and ultimately laughed out of the room if they represent themselves. The governing bodies are consummate politicians, and the sponsors did not become multibillion-dollar companies by hiring Lionel Hutz as their general counsel. The TFAA’s next step - and it should happen quickly, before it is needed and before first impressions are solidified - is to announce an experience sports lawyer and / or sports businessman as the general counsel or executive director of the TFAA.

3) Diversity of structures
     One of the greatest structural deficiencies in track and field is its monolithic structure. As I have previously discussed, track and field is unique (some might say “special”) because all aspects of the sports’ administration fall under the USATF. An independent players’ association offers the promise of an adversarial process at the negotiating table. Aside from improving the fairness and transparency of negotiations, having two opposing parties lends itself to them each trying to grow the pie rather than disputing how simply cut up an existing pie.

4) Messaging
     I should know better than to do such things, but I took a look at some of the comments on ESPN.com’s article about the TFAA. What surprised me the most (smarmy comments about lockouts, strikes and whiny athletes, and all-purpose trolling don’t surprise me any more) was how many people lambasted T&F athletes on the notion that the honor of representing their country at the Olympics should be sufficient compensation; and that track and field athletes were being greedy at best and disrespectful and ungrateful at worst for demanding better pay.
     There are a few things here, and they all go back the need to professionalize this sport. First is this idea that being an Olympian can be achieved part-time. No one would expect a professional football player to hold down a day job and still be able to compete at the necessary level on any given Sunday. Let’s face it, most people don’t even expect our college football players to attend class in the fall semester. Yet somehow we’re supposed to compete against Rudisha, Dibaba and Kiprop while driving a desk 40 hours a week. Likewise, whether it’s because track and field is a non-contact sport (getting spiked notwithstanding) or because most people think of their neighbor doing the Rock and Roll Half-Marathon when they think of the sport of running, many people don’t understand the physicality of the sport and what goes into being elite. If you’re reading this, you very likely have put yourself through some grueling workouts or, at the very least, have watched a couple Workout Wednesdays. Most people, though, think “oh hey, I’m gonna go run” and call that training. Track athletes need to leverage new media, social media, as well as basic community relations such as open practices to let the broader sporting community see that just because we’re not getting tackled or body-checked doesn’t mean there’s not hours of training or gallons of sweat being invested into the sport, day in and day out. Finally, while the Olympics are the pinnacle of track and field, the best-kept secret in American sports is that track and field meets occur year-round, around the world. Just because it only shows up on TV every four years does not mean that it’s not taking place the rest of the time. Again, this is a professional sport played by professional athletes. People play this sport as a career - we can’t let this be forgotten!

     New media, social media, lessons learned from other sports (tennis, as an example of another individual sport), a growing sports and entertainment marketspace, and the momentum from a wildly successful Olympic Games should give us reason to think that, despite the long road ahead, we will eventually emerge as a stronger, professional sport. With these advantages in hand, we’re short a few excuses if things look too hard and people start to give up. #JoinTFAA