Phoebe Wright: Max Siegel Makes Me Mad, But He Isn't The Problem With USATF

When I read the recent Washington Post story that outlined USATF CEO Max Siegel's way of doing business, my first thought was, "How much shit are we going to put up with before we, the athletes, do something about it?"

Siegel has been living large on USATF's dime. He contracted a marketing company he's affiliated with to do work for USATF. He evaded taxes. He received a healthy bonus for a controversial contract that he didn't even personally negotiate.

If track and field ever becomes a sport where we have enough excess money to fly our CEO first class, I will be overjoyed. But until then, I care.

For me, it's personal. I've been among the top six 800m runners in the U.S. since 2009. This year, I received less than $4000 in prize money, travel money, and grants from USATF--in sum, it amounts to even less because I spent more $1500 to travel, enter, and race in USATF-sponsored meets. When I lined up on the Olympic Trials start line, I knew I was either going to hit serious contract bonuses and qualify for USATF funding, or I was going to be an amateur runner shit out of luck come January. There weren't any USATF track meets with prize money after the Olympic Trials!

Siegel is flying first class to watch a meet I had to pay to race. I'm constantly comparing my bank account to the flight search results on Kayak while he's chartering flights for personal business. Jill Geer emailed me and told me USATF cannot supply me with a copy of Rosetta Stone; meanwhile, Max is getting bonuses off the Rosetta Stone partnership. That's bullshit.

But the fundamental problem in our sport isn't the distribution or lack of funds. It's not even a Max Siegel issue. It's USATF's structure and the power dynamic between it and the athletes. 

USATF's mission is "to drive competitive excellence and popular engagement in our sport."
In the elite athlete world, that means USATF's job is to make Team USA good and track popular in the United States.

USATF needs money to do that. How can USATF make money? 

-USATF is a nonprofit, so people and companies can donate to the foundation.
-The USOC gives USATF money to bring home medals. Runners, including elite athletes, pay for a USATF membership to compete at sanctioned races.
-Sponsors trade cash monies for publicity, including advertisements at meets, social media, TV, and live streams.

USATF is supposed to invest that money back into the sport.

What does USATF actually do with the money? As far as I can tell, they do three things:

-Put on their own events.
-Pay an insane amount of money to executives.
-Give the rest to athletes who are at the very top of their events.

So the distribution of USATF's money is the economic problem in our little industry. But it won't get fixed until the balance of power shifts toward the athletes.

In sports with an economic model that actually benefits the athletes, athletes and management have leverage against each other. In healthy sports, management knows that athletes make them money; athletes know that management controls the money. And they bargain against each other. But USATF bargains against no one. They are accountable to no one.

I, individually, am disposable. An athlete--barring the Allyson Felix-type superstar--has no power. If I quit, there will be another 2:00 800m runner to take my place. Collectively, though, we have lots of power--if all the 2:00 800m runners sit out, USATF has a problem. But most of us don't have enough steady income to risk a shot at earning contract bonuses and prize money that comes from performing well at USATF meets.

***

When I was in high school, I got into running to become an Olympian and see how I compare against world competition--not money. There's no way I would be willing to jeopardize an Olympic spot.

So already, there's my loss of leverage--there is literally nothing that would have led me to sit out last summer's Olympic Trials on principle.

It is in USATF's best interest to keep us reliant on them. It keeps the peace. Often, I hear people say, "running is just a charity case," which insinuates athletes are essentially homeless people demanding more handouts. Homeless people should get handouts, but this is different--we're underpaid workers.

The "charity case" school of thought is what USATF has used to keep us blind to our own worth, but it's possible that its executives are blind to it as well. Nike is a brilliant for-profit company. It would not buy the rights to outfit Team USA for 25 years out of charity. There is obviously some market value for Nike to pay USATF. If you think we are a charity case, you are getting played. 

With a $400 million Nike contract filling their coffers--earned in part by my work-- I expect USATF to help me do my job. Basically, I want to do my job without going broke in the process. I just want to be able to survive in the system. In any other profession, top six in the U.S. would be good enough to make a living. 

My proposal: Go to the USATF convention united. We should figure out which meetings result in action. We vote as a united force. We demand that a fair percent of USATF revenue goes to athletes. We demand that USATF involves a group of current athletes in all decisions that affect athlete funding, and we make sure those athletes are protected and can't be bought. 

If this doesn't work, boycott a USATF Championship. It would be the only thing left for us to do.

But if it does work, then there is so much to be done. The middle class doesn't exist in American track right now. It can be built through robust prize money at lots of events that are made cool and sustainable. (USATF has actually already done this in road racing, and I fully support it.) Then the best athletes are the best paid, and the middle class athletes can make a living. And there's is a sense of fairness because you have to earn your money.

After that, there's still much more we need: health insurance, physio, coaching stipends, and access to the Olympic Training Center. Revolutionizing the balance between the people who have the money and the people who deserve it would be a good enough start, though.

As athletes, we deserve better. But we will only get it if we demand it.

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