Track and field athletes to unionize

Updated: September 21, 2012, 9:10 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | espnW

Track and field athletes from the United States and abroad are unionizing, they said Friday, in part to fight a rule against promoting private sponsors, achieve collective bargaining and seek prize money in the Olympics.

Some of the biggest names in the sport, including Americans Sanya Richards-Ross and Bernard Lagat and Jamaican stars Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake, are part of a movement that gained momentum during the London Games. At the heart of the matter is Rule 40, an International Olympic Committee bylaw that prohibits Olympic participants from advertising for non-Olympic sponsors just before and during the Games.

We're really just trying to move the sport forward in a professional way. That's all we're trying to do and our hopes are that the USOC and IOC don't see it as something negative because we don't. But it's time, it really is.

-- Khadevis Robinson, U.S. middle-distance runner and president of the Track and Field Athletes Association

The rule triggered a heated response from athletes, who took to social media to voice their opposition.

"The whole (#WeDemandChange) Twitter rants has been an internal discussion we've had for years," Richards-Ross told ESPN.com on Friday. "A lot of athletes in our sport are severely underpaid, hold two or three jobs just to train and stay in the sport, and what pushed me over the edge to get on board and mobilize was just seeing how much money was generated from the Olympic Games.

"I do relatively well with great sponsors, but for the majority of my peers, that's not the reality and it's disheartening."

Khadevis Robinson, a U.S. middle-distance runner and president of the Track and Field Athletes Association, said that while his group -- which expanded to international athletes on Friday -- took its lead from player unions in other sports, athletes are not planning to assert their leverage with work stoppages.

"We don't foresee even discussing things like strikes. We don't want that. That's not our purpose," said Robinson, who predicted a nearly full commitment from TFAA members. "We want to find more ways for the sport's professionals to make more money, not the opposite of that."

Robinson said the realization that "our names are our brand" and that "we were not able to represent our brands in the way it should be done" prompted the move to create a mission statement and form a legalized union.

"When the general public sees Olympic sponsors, they don't know that doesn't necessarily mean there's a trickle-down to athletes," he said. "And we're not even so much upset that we can't wear certain things or tweet about them as why weren't we informed when the decisions were made? From a business and professional standpoint, why weren't we even in this conversation?"

This apparent lack of transparency, they say, will be among the first matters they address with the IOC and national governing bodies.

"To me, the most compelling reason for all athletes' associations is a lack of representation and the lack of a voice at the decision-making level," said Adam Nelson, a two-time Olympic silver medalist and world champion shot-putter. "There are a lot of groups saying they're making the best choices on behalf of athletes, but they don't really value what athletes have to say when it comes time to making their decisions. And it seems more and more like decisions are being driven by the best financial interest of a specific group than the benefit of the whole."

For Richards-Ross, the most obvious example of a productive players' union is the NFLPA, which includes among its members her husband, Aaron Ross, a cornerback for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"I've seen my husband, who has been in the NFL for six years, and I've seen what a strong players' union does, not only for the benefit of the players but the benefit of the sport," she said. "And this is global. There are unions in every industry because they need to have that voice, not just for financial reasons but for consideration of other things.

"This should have happened 20 years ago. It's well overdue. It only makes sense to unite.

"For me, it's about leaving the sport in a better state than we found it. It won't pay off for me, but for the next young girl who's 7 or 8 and wants to be the next Sanya Richards-Ross, I want her reality to be different. I want her to have this dream and have it pay off because me and others stood up for what's right."

Added Robinson: "We're really just trying to move the sport forward in a professional way. At the end of the day, that's all we're trying to do, and our hopes are that the USOC and IOC don't see it as something negative, because we don't. But it's time, it really is."

USOC chief exective officer Scott Blackmun said he understands the athletes' position.

"I understand the desire and need on the part of the athletes to try and create some real estate they can sell during the 16 days they're really at the peak of their careers, so I am sympathetic to the need and desire to do that," he said. "I don't know anything about the specific proposal, so I can't comment on it, but we would like to find ways for the athletes to benefit from their success at the Olympic Games.

"We also understand the critical need to protect the integrity of the Games and to protect the exclusivity of the sponsors who provide substantial funds for our Olympic athletes. So it's not an easy question at all but I'm looking forward to learning more about it."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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