How Crony Capitalism Screwed Nick Symmonds

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Yesterday morning USA Track & Field (USATF) announced the team for the World Championships to be held later this month. Missing from that list is this year’s national champion at 800 meters, Nick Symmonds.

I know, most of you are asking yourself “who is Nick Symmonds and why should I care?” You should care because the contemptible treatment of Symmonds by USATF vividly illustrates how government interference in the most minor aspects of our lives creates dictatorial agencies that behave viciously, illegally, and unjustly while leaving American citizens with little or no recourse when they have been wronged.

First some background – the sport of track & field has been around since ancient times with the Greeks holding the first organized competitions, but until the late 19th century there were virtually no “governing” bodies providing uniformity of events and competitions. This changed in the 1880s when the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) formed in the US. This organization standardized how events are conducted and began to keep track of records, but they only recognized “amateur” athletes – ones who did not profit from competing. But the best athletes were able to make a very good living from the sport so a flourishing, if unorganized, professional circuit existed into the 1930s. Unfortunately, the growing prestige of the Olympic Games and its ridiculous idealization of amateurism killed the pro circuit and forced American track athletes under the imperious thumb of the AAU.

For the next few decades athletes kowtowed to the AAU and survived as “shamateurs”, taking money under the table to survive while still competing. This corrupt system lasted until the 1970s when a group of athletes got fed up and formed a new pro circuit, daring the AAU to ban them, which it promptly did. Had the sport been left alone to work through its turmoil the result probably would have been a sport like golf, tennis, or NASCAR – one run by professionals for the benefit of professionals. But there was a fly in the ointment that caused Congress to stick its nose where it didn’t belong.

Track & field, especially as part of the Olympics, played a vital role in the Cold War propaganda machine. The sport was one of the few in which both the US and USSR excelled, thus head-to-head competition between them was a suitable proxy for a shooting war. In fact US vs USSR meets were held 26 times between 1958 and 1985, drawing as many as 150,000 spectators. Track may have been a minor sport in America but it was a big deal when it came to international diplomacy. The American athlete rebellion of the 1970s threatened to spoil the rivalry.

The government (in its opinion) had to act. In 1978 Congress, lacking any Constitutional authorization for its action, passed the Amateur Sports Act, breaking up the privately run and originated AAU and replacing it with organizations blessed by Congress to act as governing bodies for their respective sports. For track & field the governing body became USATF (originally called the Athletics Congress). By doing this the federal government effectively made USATF the only game in town granting it monopoly-like powers to control international competition for American athletes. No other organization can be created to send athletes to the Olympics, Track & Field World Championships, or any other international event. USATF is God.

Since its creation, athletes have continued to battle with the quasi-governmental organization. After nearly a decade they won the fight to compete as professionals and money began pouring into the sport. USATF woke up to the riches that abound and decided it to get its cut. In 1991 the organization signed its first sponsorship deal with Nike for $1 million per year and sold its soul to the Devil. As it turned out, Nike (which ironically backed athletes during the professionalism battle) is very heavy handed in enforcing its contract. At the 1991 World Championships, sprinter Carl Lewis and his teammates were leaving the practice track in Tokyo after completing a workout in their Nike provided uniforms. As they left the track Lewis had the temerity to cover the Nike gear with his “Santa Monica Track Club” t-shirt. A Nike rep (who is now a USATF board member) told Carl that he must remove the offending shirt and ONLY wear Nike gear the whole time he was in Tokyo! USATF head Ollan Cassell actually backed Lewis in the ensuing dispute and forced Nike to back down, but things changed after Cassell left the federation.

Over the years the Nike contracts got longer and provided USATF more money with the latest lasting until 2040 for $20 million a year. That sounds like a lot until you consider this – Nike pays soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo $21 million per year. Nike pays more to clothe one soccer player than it does for the right to clothe the entire sport of track & field.

And that brings us back to Mr. Symmonds. For years now Nick has advocated for greater freedom for the athletes to display sponsor logos on their uniforms and gear. Right now they are restricted to one small logo on their uniform, regardless of how many sponsors they may have. USATF has countered that allowing non-Nike companies to plaster athlete uniforms will cheapen the Nike brand and cause the company to lessen or withdraw its sponsorship. Whether this is true or not (it doesn’t seem to make a difference in NASCAR or cycling) is irrelevant. With the exception of those sponsored by Nike, the athletes don’t get a penny from the shoe giant because they do NOT run for Nike.

Remember the 1991 incident with Carl Lewis and the Nike rep? Since then USATF has changed its tune and requires Nike only gear at all times when competing on a US team. Symmonds found this out at the 2014 World Indoor Championships when a USATF official forced him to change out of his Brooks (Symmond’s sponsor) t-shirt as Nick went to the hotel lobby to get coffee! Not only must the athletes wear Nike when competing but according to the government mandated monopoly federation, they must wear it ALL the time!

Symmonds decided he’d had enough of the BS. This year he informed USATF that he would not sign the athlete contract making him a member of the US team for Worlds unless they make clear when and why Nike gear must be worn. USATF has refused to do this because they have the power given them by the government to do whatever they want (FYTW). When the team was announced, the defending World Championship silver medalist and six-time US champion was left off the squad.

You may think that unless you are a track athlete or fan that this story is meaningless to you. But it isn’t. This is actually a vivid example of how the government has thoroughly permeated all aspects of our lives to exert its power and control. USATF is a government mandated monopoly, just like the cable company, most utilities, the post office, the Federal Reserve, some hospitals, etc. These organizations might not get a dime of taxpayer money or have a single government employee, but they do wield government mandated power. Symmonds is screwed because USATF is the only organization allowed to control his sport, just like you get screwed in many little ways because the government restricts your choices.

Wayne Middlesteadt is the author of “Five Ways to Beat the Market” and “The Golden Age of Distance Running”.

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Wayne Middlesteadt is a 1986 graduate of Georgia Tech and has an MBA from Georgia State University. Currently working as a financial writer and track and field historian, his latest book is Five Ways To Beat The Market.