U.S. Sporting World Jolted Again as Track Stars Threaten to Strike

2008 USA Olympic Track and Field Trials Eugene, Oregon    June 2Discontent has been building for a while now over how the USA Track and Field applies rules and runs meets. As a result, U.S. track stars are considering going on strike against the sport’s governing body. If they go through with the collective action, several athletes will likely be boycotting the championships in June.

Last February, feelings were running strong after controversial decisions were made during the indoor national track and field championships — including two disqualifications. The disqualifications issues were suspiciously all linked to the same coach, who worked with Nike sponsored clients.

The athletes’ demands involve multiple athletes, from runners to pole-vaulters, and their demands are putting pressure on sponsors such as Nike and Brooks Running. While some brands, such as Berkshire Hathaway’s Brooks, and Oiselle Running, have pledged to support athletes, Nike has found itself on the other side, as the USATF’s largest sponsor.

Currently, even though other major sporting leagues such as basketball, baseball, football, and hockey are highly unionized, track and field athletes have remained an outlier, acting as independent contractors rather than employees. Most of their incomes are derived from sponsorship contracts — offering little opportunity for the industry to organize under a traditional union structure.

Track and field athletes often have to work under difficult conditions. Many top athletes earn less than $15,000, often because endorsement contracts limit the option for multiple sponsorships, can limit how often and where an athlete competes, and can eliminate income in instances of poor performance.