99 Problems...

I keep trying to avoid this subject. Like I used to avoid talking politics at the dinner table. But it’s popping up over and over again and my inquisitive nature won’t allow me to ignore it any longer. 

It’s the question of the future of track and field in America.

Why is it that a sport in which every single person has claimed to have participated commands so little in terms of visibility, marketability, and direct dollars to its professional participants?

There are those that hoist the metaphorical “We must unionize” picket signs via Facebook and Twitter statuses.

There are those that attack the shoe companies and their exclusivity rights to advertising at meet venues and on our uniforms.

There are those that demonize the executives of the federations for collecting the checks essentially slowing the mythical “trickle-down” effect to a halt.

But can we be honest for a moment, and call it for what it really is?

A culture of selfishness.

Track and Field is not a team sport. 

Even in middle school, your individual performance was calculated into the overall score BUT you were honored as the winner of your individual event, and maybe just maybe you contributed to the overall victory of your team but nine times out of ten if you won your event AND your team still lost you probably weren’t all that pissed off about it.

Don’t feel bad. I’m guilty too. I’ll give you an example, when I saw the baton fly through the air in slow motion in the first round of the 4x100 meter relay at the Rio Olympics I immediately thought two things:

The first…that despite the overall failure of our team to get the baton around the track I ran one helluva leg.

The second…thank God I got my gold already.

I’m not proud to have had these thoughts and I’m even less thrilled about sharing them with you BUT it’s important to realize that the problem is in fact: cultural. 

The question should then become how do we change the culture of track and field in America?

And in order to even begin to answer HOW to change THAT culture it would behoove us to understand how cultures are created in the first place.

And before we can understand how cultures are created in the FIRST place we need to have a unified working definition of the term. For the purposes of this blog entry I’m defining culture as “a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs, which governs how people behave.”

What are our shared assumptions about track and field?

What do we value most in this sport?

What do we believe to be true about the sport and its participants?

These are the questions that need answering. 

Most of us were introduced to track and field through schools, or summer clubs. 

Your parents and/or coaches were your primary sponsors. 

They’d piece together a uniform from Eastbay, or Walmart, or Target and pay your entry fees. 

You competed for ribbons and medals. 

The team road trips were as exciting as the competitions. 

You were on a track team with friends you’d been in school or grown up with for years.

Then you start getting letters from colleges to your homeroom. It makes you feel good, you’re being sought after. But your friends aren’t. This flatters you, you’re special. Set apart now. And all this is happening in conjunction with adolescence which is already a period rife with the need to find yourself, and flex your individuality muscle.

Now you’re going on official visits to colleges. 

They are rolling out the red carpet for you, 

taking you to football games, 

and steakhouses.

It’s just you. 

Your parents have a different itinerary. 

You’re being escorted around by members of a track team that have been instructed to make you feel like you are the difference between winning NCAAs and a runner-up finish. 

You’re feeling yourself. 

It’s all about you.

So you get to college. Some schools foster the team environment better than others but you’ve got a scholarship to keep. You’ve got to perform. Yes, it would be awesome to raise the team trophy at conference or NCAAs but let’s face facts…the only person or people who get punished for how the team does is the coaching staff. As long as you perform your scholarship is safe. And that’s what you care about.

Maybe you’re good enough to leave school early and turn pro- maybe there was a bidding war for your contract. Or maybe you’ve exhausted your eligibility and you find yourself in the post-collegiate world without a sponsor. 

You’re hungry, you’ve got something to prove. 

Do you see the problem yet?

From our most impressionable age- adolescence— we’ve been groomed to see track and field not as a sport in which people work together, but as a sport in which you must stand apart. 

How else were you going to get that scholarship offer?

How else were you going to get that contract?

So which of these variables can or should be changed? 

How colleges recruit? 

How shoe companies bid for your endorsement? 

Think about the problem differently. This can’t just be about money.

Yes, we are overworked and underpaid when compared to other sports with our fanbase. 

Yes, there’s a sizable contingency of people that believe if the superstars of our sport would boycott large events and make demands the rising tide would lift all boats.

But that is yet to happen because…

that scholarship you worked so hard to get…

that contract you want so badly to keep…

would be put at risk.

Ask yourself if you would risk your entire salary and livelihood at your 9 to 5 to guarantee the salary of someone else? Maybe. 

And isn’t it a lot easier to say that you would when you have less to lose? Maybe.

We aren’t even unified enough to know what success would look like. 

So the money question is this: what’s the true cost of cultural selfishness?

And who’s willing to pay?

nick steadman