The Inside Lane: How Bad Do You Want It?

Nick Symmonds took a bold stance. But for it to pay off, he can't do it alone, writes Mario Fraioli. Photo: PhotoRun.net

We’re constantly reminded that actions speak louder than words, and no one’s actions in the world of track and field have made more noise in the past week than those of reigning U.S. 800m champion Nick Symmonds, a Brooks Running-sponsored athlete who will not represent his country at the IAAF World Championships later this month in Beijing because he refused to sign a statement of conditions required by Nike-backed USA Track & Field, the sport’s governing body.

Contrast Symmonds’ bold stance with a smattering of sheepish statements released by USATF on Monday that, in essence, amount to a weak defense of an antiquated and obscure set of bylaws they clearly have no intention of changing anytime soon.

“We respect Nick’s decision not to represent the United States at the IAAF World Championships,” USATF communication chief, Jill Geer, said in a release. “The Statement of Conditions is part of USATF’s governance documents, and its requirements are common in professional, Olympic and National Team sports, both domestically and internationally. It has been in place for years, and athletes and agents are familiar with the provisions of the document, which include requirements pertaining to athlete conduct as goodwill ambassadors for the United States, proper handling of the American flag, wearing the designated Team uniform at official Team functions, attendance at official Team practices, meetings and other events, commitment to train and report fit to compete, and following doping rules…As part of USATF’s bylaws, the Statement of Conditions must be signed by all athletes who compete for Team USA, and it cannot be unilaterally changed or waived by any USATF officer. USATF has been in active and regular discussions with athlete leadership for more than a year about the definition, benefits and obligations of professional athletes in the sport. Our dialog with Nick and his representatives over the last week has added to the discussion.”

RELATED: Nick Symmonds Left Off World Championship Team

More importantly, compare Symmonds’ actions with the relative non-action of his fellow U.S. track athletes, whose “support” of Nick’s stance have amounted to nothing more than a steady stream of digital chirping at this point. As Toni Reavis so poignantly wrote over the weekend, “until the athletes of track and field truly unite, they will have no one to blame but themselves for continuing to be treated if not as serfs, as they were for decades, but simply as independent contractors where any one protestor among them can be easily replaced, as Max Siegel has warned Nick Symmonds of being for Beijing.”

By refusing to sign the mandatory statement of conditions required of every qualified U.S. athlete wishing to compete at the world championships, Symmonds is sacrificing himself as a lone marytr in an effort to instigate a change in the way athletes are allowed to represent their individual sponsors while also representing the U.S. in international competition—a privilege Symmonds has had multiple times over the course of his professional career. But for change to take place, and for USATF to take athletes’ sponsorship rights more seriously, Symmonds cannot work alone. As Reavis wrote, one protester can easily be replaced, as USATF demonstrated on Monday when they named Clayton Murphy to replace Symmonds on the U.S. team for Beijing. But imagine if every non-Nike athlete who qualified to represent the U.S. at the world championships or Olympic Games—or better, every athlete, regardless of their sponsor—refused to sign the statement of conditions as it’s currently written, thus deeming themselves ineligible to compete. What would USATF do in that situation?

While it’s hard to say for sure, at the most fundamental level it would force the organization to look itself in the mirror and answer the question of whether they truly want to send the best U.S. team to a global championship or only the individuals who agree to adhere to a current set of bylaws that mostly benefits Nike, their primary sponsor through 2040.

USATF, which proudly bills itself as “the World’s #1 Track Team” said in a separate release on Monday morning, “Team USA is coming off an impressive performance at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in 2013, scoring 282 points as a team for the most ever by a U.S. team. Team USA captured 25 medals, tying its second-highest medal output.”

One of the key contributors to that medal count was Symmonds, who took home a silver in the 800 meters, the first U.S. medal in that event in 16 years. So, given that, how serious is USATF about being the ‘World’s #1 Track & Field Team,’ if they’re going to let politics keep the reigning U.S. champion and world silver medalist off the squad?

If there’s going to be a martyr for athletes’ rights, there’s no better volunteer than Symmonds, who is not only the most outspoken critic of the numerous issues and injustices that face track and field athletes today, but also a 6-time national champion, one of the best championship 800m runners in the world, and America’s top hope for a global medal in the middle-distance event.

The problem is here is that Nick Symmonds is one athlete. A major hurdle in the effort to instigate change of any sort in track and field is that it’s a sport full of independent contractors with no established athletes’ union looking out for everyone’s best interests. Aside from a relatively small handful of successful athletes such as Symmonds who have been able to enjoy a prosperous career through a combination of world-class results, shrewd negotiating and smart marketing, it’s a tough climate in which to make a living as a “professional,” and at the end of the day almost everyone ends up looking out for their own best interests.

So, when the world championships kick off in Beijing on Aug. 22, Symmonds will be sitting at home as 131 of his fellow U.S. athletes compete. All have presumably signed the statement of conditions not only because they’ve been working hard for the opportunity to represent the U.S. at a global championship, but also because they’re either:

  1. Sponsored by Nike, so for these athletes there is no conflict of interest regarding what they wear at “official” team functions. Also, there’s usually a nice sponsor bonus for making a world championship team, and even more if you win a medal.
  2. Sponsored by a brand other than Nike, but are getting a nice bonus from their sponsor for making the world championships team—along with any additional bonuses if they win a medal—so they’re willing to grin and bear wearing the swoosh for a week.
  3. Not sponsored by a major footwear or apparel sponsor, so there’s little to no conflict of interest and competing at the world championships is likely to open doors into bigger meets and/or secure additional sponsorship opportunities.

Given the current climate of “professional” track and field, can you blame any of them?

The one question every professional U.S. track and field athlete needs to ask themselves is this: Am I willing to forfeit the individual privilege to compete at the world championships or Olympic Gamesand all the tangential benefits that come with itbecause I truly care to see change that will benefit not only me, but my fellow athletes as well?

To this point, with the exception of Nick Symmonds, the answer has clearly been “no.” Words in the form of social media posts, petitions and the like aren’t going to generate enough noise to force the changes that will allow everyone—not just the best athletes—to thrive and make a living in the sport. More athletes need to follow in Symmonds’ footsteps and take bold action if they want to see change for everyone. Otherwise, it’s all just a bunch of background noise.

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