By Nick Hilton
One of the biggest weekends of the year just concluded with the U.S. Track and Field Championships in Sacramento creating new history, but it’s hard to forget some of the lasting memories from the last indoor championships.
First it was the Grunewald-Hasay disqualification debacle. Then it was USA Track and Field (USATF)’s inability to solve the problem in a timely manner or respond to repeated inquiries about what was being done. It’s taken USATF more than four months after the meet to release the findings of its working group on the 3000 meter races. The lack of communication from the national governing body is an issue that remains at the forefront of the professional track and field scene to this day.
With these memories remaining so fresh, it’s about time for the group that represents the interests of professional track and field athletes to come back into the spotlight.
The Track and Field Athletes Association (TFAA) is constructed to be that organization.
Founded to “support the rights and interests of professional track and field athletes,” the TFAA is unique by traditional union standards, seeing that it has to bargain as a representative of individual athletes instead of bargaining for one large collective group. While the athletes are a collective, they also represent different companies, sponsors, and interests. Unions typically represent a set of individuals working under the same umbrella, rather than representing the interests of individuals working under many different umbrellas.
TFAA’s board of directors is filled with current and former professional athletes. The board members have experience in the sport as athletes, professionals, and competitors, but not necessarily with collective bargaining.
The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), in contrast, has legal experts as members of its organization and recruits people with collective bargaining experience to help the association represent its athletes in the most effective way possible.
The TFAA has toyed with the idea of hiring lawyers and pursuing legal action before. What was the problem? Funding.
“Lawyers, social media experts, and others require significant funding,” said TFAA president Adam Nelson. “We don’t lack resourcefulness. We lack resources.”
So how does an athlete’s association increase funding? One way is to increase the amount of members of said association.
An organization like the MLBPA represents approximately 1200 athletes. That’s every man on each team’s roster. Compare that to the 180 athlete members of the TFAA, a fraction of the total number of athletes across all events in track and field and road racing.
So what is the TFAA doing to attract new members?
Well, according to Nelson, nothing at all.
“We don’t actively recruit members,” Nelson said. “We actively educate members of current structural or procedural issues that impose unfair restrictions on the commercial opportunities for athletes.”
Even though the TFAA doesn’t recruit, Nelson does admit, “A large membership increases our visibility with all stakeholders in the sport and provides us with a much greater voice to draw attention to the issues that impact our members.”
So here we sit at one of the many road blocks that hinder the TFAA from being as effective as they could be. A larger membership would help, but they don’t recruit.
So what does the TFAA do to get their message heard?
They haven’t believed in strikes or other blunt force tactics up to this point, but they do believe that a strong social media presence is vital.
The TFAA has just over 2100 tweets, but it’s tough to find anything stating what they’re stance is on key issues within our sport. Much of the content includes retweets of articles that others have written and messages to members and new members thanking them for joining. It takes some navigating of their website to get an idea what their message is.
When the TFAA wants to “leverage the collective social media presence of our membership to shape and publicize discussions,” you’d expect to see them as the leading voice at the head of the movement. Instead, individuals like Lauren Fleshman, Lolo Jones, and Nick Symmonds are much more vocal and visible than the TFAA. While these individuals are incredibly important, and are in fact TFAA members, the voice of the collective should be the voice heard over all others.
Without knowing everything that goes on behind the scenes, it doesn’t appear that the TFAA has gotten it quite right yet.
The TFAA looks to sports like golf and tennis as examples of individual sports where management engages with an athletes association to the benefit of the sport and the athletes. But if you Google golf or tennis athletes associations, the responses are limited.
Golf specifically seems to lack athlete representation that would aid many of its players. Like track and field, golf suffers from a “haves and have-nots” problem of its own. Many professional golfers find themselves paying their way to tournaments for weeks, trying to make a living on the road, and scrape out a few grand from a weekend of golf. For many, it’s tough to come out in the black.
Not exactly what I would describe as professional athlete nirvana.
So why model ourselves after a sport that has many of the same issues?
We need to be radical, innovative, and louder with our displeasure with how things are run. It’s not okay that this disqualification debacle is still unsolved. It’s not okay that the USATF went against the long distance running committee and chose Los Angeles over Houston for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, regardless of the size of the market.
As an aspiring professional runner, it’s tough for me to be critical of an organization that I believe can do much good for the athletes. But having studied labor history, it’s tough for to look at the TFAA and think that they’re going in the right direction.
I imagine representing athletes in a largely individual sport is incredibly complex and full of potholes that other sports and organizations don’t deal with.
However, that’s no excuse for the TFAA not to be much more prepared and ready to overcome the pitfalls that come with it. Hire legal professionals, run social media and ad campaigns, don’t be afraid of blunt force tactics, be bold and be heard. We can change the culture, and we can change the sport.
Nick Hilton is a manager at Run Flagstaff in Flagstaff, Arizona where he trains as a professional distance runner. He is a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and a member of Team Run Flagstaff Pro. He competes in distances ranging from the mile to the marathon. Follow him on Twitter @Nackhilton and on his personal blog The Moderately Talented Distance Runner.