By Jim Ferstle
US 800 meter champion Nick Symmonds announced via Twitter tonight that he had been informed that he was no longer on the US team that will compete in the IAAF World Championships in Beijing. The reason? Symmonds refused to sign a "dress code" agreement between USATF and Nike.
This dispute brought back memories of 1991 when the US team was competing in the IAAF World Championships in Japan. The conversation about that event centered on the issue of athletes' responsibilities as well and demonstrated how much things have changed in the last 24 years.
My notes are from a conversation I had in the 1991 with the late Alvin Chriss, who had been special assistant to then USATF executive director Ollan Cassell. Chriss was trying to convince me that Cassell was not the enemy of the athletes. That, Cassell was, in fact, an advocate for athletes' rights. To illustrate his point he told me a story about an encounter between a couple of Santa Monica Track Club athletes and Steve Miller, then newly hired by Nike to manage the company's sponsorship deals, such as the one they had signed with USATF.
As it is today, that relationship included Nike providing the national uniforms for the US athletics teams at events, such as the World Championships. During the '91 championships, Chriss said, Miller had witnessed Carl Lewis, a Santa Monica TC member and star of the US team, and another Santa Monica athlete on the infield of the track. The pair were getting ready for a workout and each had removed their Nike issued US uniform tops, underneath which was a Santa Monica Track Club shirt. The pair was not intending to work out in their Santa Monica gear, the shirt was just something they had on under their US team gear.
Miller informed the athletes that this was a violation of Nike's agreement with USATF. That both athletes were guilty of breach of the contract. When this incident was relayed to Cassell, he summoned Miller and a less than cordial conversation occurred, Chriss noted. Cassell told Miller that: "They(Lewis and his teammate) don't belong to you."
Cassell added that if Miller had an issue with athletes' behavior. "You come and talk to me." Miller, who currently is the Chairman of the USATF Board of Directors, was not pleased about being admonished on the matter, Cassell told Chriss. But the dispute went no further.
Chriss said that Cassell believed that part of his job was to see that athletes were fairly treated. The perception of the athletes to the Symmonds dispute outcome is the opposite. The athletes are getting the message that they are not valued for their athletic talents, but instead are merely billboards for the highest bidder.
The last word has not been spoken on this situation, however. A matter that seemingly had a simple solution could get even more complicated. Lawyers could get involved. Neither party to the dispute is likely to walk away unscathed.
The allure of sports is that each event has a clear winner, not what company has purchased the right team. The Olympics, World Championships, etc. are athletic contests, not fashion shows or infomercials. .The athletes and sponsors need each other. Some sort of solution should have been negotiated on the impasse that has resulted in a World Championship silver medallist forgoing his opportunity to compete because of sponsorship issues.