Nick Symmonds vs. USA Track and Field is far bigger than just one runner
This is the week in which Nick Symmonds, a 31-year-old outdoorsman and entrepreneur from the Great Pacific Northwest, became more famous for not signing a piece of paper than he would ever have become for running the 800 meters. This is both remarkable and instructive when you consider that Symmonds has run the 800 meters faster than all but two men in the history of U.S. track and field and finished fifth in the 2012 Olympic final, arguably the greatest almost-half-mile race ever run (the one in which Kenyan David Rudisha broke his own world record). But then again, this is track and field, where achievement often finds itself stomped upon by all manner of controversy.
A primer here: On the last weekend of June in Eugene, Ore., Symmonds won the 800 meters at the USA Track and Field national championships, thus earning one of three spots on the U.S. “team” (actually a sprawling and diverse collection of individuals who happen to hold citizenship in the same country, which will be a recurring theme here) that will compete in the world championships beginning Aug. 22 in Beijing. Immediately after that race, Symmonds underwent a process called “national team processing,” in which he was instructed to sign a document called a “Statement of Conditions,” which essentially laid out the ground rules for membership on Team USA in Beijing.
Symmonds was familiar with the document. This was the fifth time he had qualified for the outdoor world championships; he won a silver medal in 2013 in Moscow. Symmonds also ran in both the 2008 and ’12 Olympic games and the ’14 indoor world championships. He had signed the “Statement of Conditions” at least six times previously (maybe seven; keep reading). He did not sign it in Eugene, he says, under immediate threat of removal from the team, despite that fact that the deadline for signing was Aug. 9.
Symmonds chose not to sign because the Statement of Conditions includes the stipulation “I will dress appropriately and respectfully for all Team functions, wearing the designated Team uniforms provided by USATF.” (The capital T is a clever touch here.) Team uniforms are provided by Nike, which bid (unopposed) for the right to outfit the Team as part of a larger sponsorship deal. (See, I can do the capital letter thing, too.) Symmonds is sponsored by Brooks, another shoe and apparel company, and sought the right to wear his Brooks gear—or “kit”—as often as possible in Beijing, in order to maximize his sponsor’s investment. Shortly after the Eugene meet, Symmonds received a letter from USATF congratulating him on making the Team and doubling down on the whole gear issue by writing, “… you are required to wear the Nike Team USA apparel …. at all team functions throughout the trip, including at the athlete hotel, during training, press conferences, competition, and award ceremonies. Accordingly, please pack ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel….”
At this point Symmonds says he sought to receive a specific definition from USATF as to what constituted a “Team function,” and perhaps amended wording in the document. If he did not sign by Aug. 9, he would be excluded from the team. “It seemed to me that they were defining a team function as every minute from when I left my apartment in the United States to when I got back on the plane home. Brooks is investing in me; I need to give them a return on that investment at every opportunity when I’m not at an official function.”
Symmonds spoke several times with USATF CEO Max Siegel. “He told me that he knows there are issues to be addressed,” says Symmonds, “but that he didn’t have the power to include me on the team if I didn’t sign the document and he couldn’t change the wording.” (USATF Chief Public Affairs officer Jill Geer says the Statement of Conditions has been unchanged “for many years,” and that it is part of the USATF bylaws and can’t be unilaterally amended outside the organization’s judicial process.)
One other factor here: Symmonds says that during the 2014 indoor world championships in Poland, he “was bullied by several different Team USA staff members for something as simple as having a cup of coffee in my Brooks gear.” Symmonds says he didn’t sign the Statement of Conditions before that competition. USATF says he did. This time, he let the Aug. 9 deadline pass without signing and was excluded from the Team USA roster announced Monday. Geer said that every other Team athlete signed the Statement of Conditions and she doesn’t know if that roster can be changed before the meet starts. Symmonds said that he will meet with a lawyer this week to explore his options. Attorney Nancy Hogshead-Maker told Ken Goe of The Oregonian that Symmonds could win a court battle.
L’Affaire Symmonds has polarized the little niche community of track and field athletes, media and fans and spread its tentacles into the mainstream, where it’s a handily debatable case of Little Guy vs. (Sorta) Big Bully.
On the one hand, the language in the USATF’s “Statement of Conditions” is so vague that it’s shocking it has not been previously challenged. The subsequent letter strongly suggesting that athletes not bring any branded gear other than Nike Team USA kits is wildly inappropriate and unprofessional. At the very least, A-list athletes like Symmonds will participate in sponsor press conferences on-site in Beijing (usually at a hotel other than the Team USA hotel) and will wear the latest in that sponsor’s gear. USATF officials are fully aware of these press events and have no grounds on which to prevent or inhibit athletes from participating.
(For perspective: ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, team members signed an “Athlete Game Form” that included this language: “I will wear designated USOC apparel at  all official Games functions and events, including Opening, Closing and Medal Ceremonies; and  at media events (including press conferences) hosted by the USOC, IOC or SOOC; I also understand that the USOC strongly encourages me to wear designated USOC apparel whenever possible, and that I will be expected to wear designated USOC apparel at USOC hospitality functions.’’ This wording is specific enough that athletes can better understand when and where they can wear their own sponsor gear.)
Meanwhile, Symmonds could have taken another route. He could have signed the Statement of Conditions, and then gone to Beijing and boldly challenged it by wearing his Brooks gear everywhere except competition. USATF officials might have sent him packing before his first race. Besides, says Symmonds, “I’m a businessman. I don’t sign contracts that don’t fully define the terms of the contract.”
More to the point: What is the purpose of unmasking perceived institutional injustice if not to attack with the loudest possible voice in the grandest possible forum? Symmonds made the U.S. team by winning the national title, but his times are not at the level of 2012 and ’13. The 800 meters is a deep and challenging event on the international stage and each round of preliminaries is a death match. To be sure, Symmonds is a brilliant tactical racer with the type of finishing speed that makes him a threat in any championship race. He says missing the worlds “could be a huge financial hit for me,” but he would have been very, very hard-pressed to win a medal—and any prize money—in Beijing. So if he were to challenge the rule in Beijing, bomb out in the semifinals and then receive—or not receive—discipline, it’s the quiet act of a nobody that unfolds 8,000 miles from home in the long shadow of Usain Bolt and the start of the NFL and college football seasons.
Instead, Symmonds took his stand now. Right or wrong, agree or disagree, it’s hard to argue with his timing. There is a much larger issue in play than Nick Symmonds and his Brooks T-shirts, one that cuts to the heart of a sport’s battle for relevance and its athletes’ battle for financial survival.
“This is the beginning of a much bigger story,” says distance runner Lauren Fleshman, a member of six U.S. world championship teams in cross country and track and a vocal advocate for change in the financial structure of the sport.
“This is a great thing for the sport,” says shot putter Adam Nelson, Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and two-time world champion (and embarking on a comeback at age 40). “Track and field needs to figure out whether it’s strictly an Olympic sport, or a professional sport that has an Olympic component. And it’s going to take bold actions by athletes. I’m behind Nick 100%.”
At the crux of the argument that Symmonds has brought into the light is the financial compensation system of track and field. Most athletes earn the majority of their income through sponsorship deals with shoe and apparel companies such as Nike, Brooks and others. Athletes are paid a salary and provided gear by the companies, in return for making public appearances and displaying that gear in competition and at any other time, when possible and permitted. At the same time, USA Track and Field has a longstanding financial partnership with Nike, and last year extended that partnership through 2040 for a reported $500 million.
Thus, there is a built-in resistance to the “Statement of Conditions” by athletes not affiliated with Nike. Fleshman, who was a Nike-sponsored athlete until 2012, says, “In our sport, you have sponsors like Oiselle [her sponsor] that pay us a salary to tell our stories to the public, but when you get to a certain level, on the biggest stage, you’re in a Swoosh.”
The other side: Nike’s payment to USATF provides critical financial support, and no other company offered to bid against it. But Nike is a business, and a rapacious one. Nike writes checks for one reason: To assist in the movement of Nike product through cash registers. Its mammoth payment to USATF bought control. That control is exercised at all competitions where U.S. athletes are part of the national “Team’’—says Fleshman: “Nike sports marketing people are like mobsters when it comes to enforcing their contracts”—but also, some athletes argue, beyond those competitions.
“USATF has chosen to build deeper and deeper relationships at the primary-sponsor level [Nike’s level],” says Nelson. “Often that conflicts with the personal relationships we’re trying to build as athletes.”
Like this: Nike’s ownership of the national team, and its ubiquitous presence at domestic meets, reduces the incentive for other companies to sponsor athletes because, essentially, they would be extending not only their own brand, but Nike’s, which is poor business. Hence, fewer companies sign track and field athletes to sponsorship deals. Adidas and Reebok have virtually left the sport. Hoka One One and Oiselle have come in recently, joining the likes of Asics and New Balance. But those companies sign fewer athletes than Nike, and according to Fleshman, Nike has responded to the lack of competition by offering less lucrative contracts.
“It’s become big bucks or poverty level for athletes,” says Fleshman. “The number of $30,000-to-$60,000 contracts has evaporated. Now it’s big money for stars and $15,000 for others, and I mean athletes on world championship teams. And there are very accomplished athletes getting just bonuses and travel expenses.”
It’s difficult to predict the long-term effect of this scenario. Potentially, fewer gifted athletes—below the level of the very elite—would remain in track and field and the American medal count would drop accordingly. At the same time, U.S. Track and Field has never had a real development “system.” Superstars reliably just come along every few years to keep the sport in the spotlight. Carl Lewis. Maurice Greene. Allyson Felix.
Athletes argue that USATF is flush with money and should give more to the athletes. In a study commissioned by the Track and Field Athletes Association, Smith College professor of Economics Andrew Zimbalist concludes that from projected revenue of $42.92 million in 2015, only $3.46 million, or 8.02%, will be paid to athletes. USATF doesn’t dispute Zimbalist’s findings, but interprets the numbers differently and argues that for 2015, nearly 50% of revenue will be spent on athletes, although that number will include such line-items as “elite athlete competitions”’ and “grass-roots programs,” which are important but don’t generally put cash in athletes’ pockets. The semantics are challenging.
Symmonds and other athletes propose that USATF pay salaries to “Team” members to supplement their shoe and apparel contracts. This is a nice idea that could prove to be overwhelmingly complex. How much do you pay Justin Gatlin vs. the third-place racewalker at the national championships? What constitutes a “Team” member? Who decides? Yet such complexity shouldn’t prevent both sides from working the problem. Geer, the USATF spokesperson, says, “We’ve been working for the last year to define what a professional athlete is, and what benefits and obligations go with that title.”
Nelson says, “Max Siegel is a sports marketing executive and he’s been very good at making money for USA Track and Field. But they’re starting to make decisions based on what’s best for the federation, not what’s best for the athletes. The athletes have to start asking hard, intelligent questions about where the revenue is going.”
Nick Symmonds asked. To argue about how he should have asked, or in what forum, is missing the point. There’s no ambiguity in the wrongheadedness of telling somebody what to put in his or her own suitcase or the common sense in standing up to say so. Track and field has a problem. People are talking about it. One small step.