Track and Field has a long history of athletes rebelling against the archaic regulations the USATF puts in place. Most notable is Steve Prefontaine who fought the amateur requirements which meant full-time runners couldn’t be Olympians. His fight was ultimately successful, as is oftentimes the case when the biggest name and brightest personality stands up to a sport’s governing body.
In the modern age, a new runner has found his way to the forefront of the good fight: Nick Symmonds. And his latest fight is the most impactful of all, at least in terms of what it means for his season.
Symmonds, America’s premier 800m runner over the past decade might be known by casual fans for his incredible finish at the 2008 Olympic Trials. He recently won the USA championship in the 800m, which is usually a guaranteed trip to the World Championships. And it would’ve led to a trip, had Symmonds signed the USATF contract release. But Symmonds didn’t do that, mainly because he’s sponsored by Brooks and USATF is sponsored by Nike. This shouldn’t have led to a problem, but the contract says that Nike should be worn at all team events and Symmonds says he was told to only pack Nike gear. He would have been fine with wearing the USA Nike uniforms, but the inability to wear Brooks at any time, such as when he’s relaxing in the team hotel, is something that he isn’t comfortable with.
Would USATF really restrict what he wears in the team hotel? It seems like that may be the case. As reported by the New York Times, at the 2014 world indoor championships in Poland, Symmonds said he was asked by American officials to remove his Brooks gear while drinking coffee in a team hotel. Drinking coffee. In a hotel. And he had to be wearing Nike.
Symmonds wrote a piece on Huffington Post explaining his logic behind not signing the contract. That article reveals many things, but most concerning would be the 8% of USATF funds that go to the athletes. In the NBA, the players are paid nearly 50%, and that is viewed as far too low, and could be the reason for a strike at the next round of CBA negotiations. Symmonds said he was willing to work with USATF in order to develop a new, more specific contract. Officials declined his offer.
Supporters of the current funding allocation by USATF will bring up how the organization uses profits to support youth track and field. While that may be true, in no other sport do you see the league taking money away from the players in order to build youth programs. Some would also say that track and field isn’t as profitable as those other sports, so drawing comparisons isn’t logical. But maybe the reason why it isn’t nearly as profitable has to do with the way the sport has been run for the past half-century.
It’s worth noting that it has been reported in various places that Symmonds is giving up a six-figure bonus. That’s incorrect, as Brooks has confirmed that they’ll still pay the bonus that their runner earned by qualifying for the championship. All he is giving up is the chance to represent his country against the world’s best.
Symmonds previously fought against the inability for athletes to get more diverse endorsements by auctioning off the ability to tattoo a twitter handle on his arm. (The tattoo was temporary.) Still, Symmonds had to cover up the tattoo with tape when he ran, which likely drew more attention than just black lettering would have.
It’s clear that the system for track and field athletes is broken. At this point, the sport is nowhere near as lucrative as the major team sports, and I don’t think that it ever will be. But if the United States want to compete on a global level in distance running, more money will certainly help the cause. Allowing mid-level runners to make a living and train until they are elites will only improve the quality of the sport, from top to bottom.