Nick Symmonds to miss worlds after failing to sign USATF contract release

ByDarren Rovell ESPN logo
Monday, August 10, 2015

American runner Nick Symmonds, who won the 800 meters at the U.S. Trials, will not be making the trip with the American team to the world championships in Beijing this month after failing to sign the statement of conditions required of him by USA Track & Field.

USA Track & Field sent Symmonds an email Sunday night to confirm he didn't sign the document by noon that day, which resulted in the organization's decision to replace him. The formal announcement is expected Monday morning.

"Two years' worth of work to try to win another medal for my country are now down the drain," Symmonds said. "Is it frustrating? Of course. But no part of me regrets doing this."

Symmonds decided to take a stand in order to push for more rights for his fellow athletes, believing they should be rewarded with a bigger piece of the pie.

The statement of conditions says the athlete must wear designated team uniforms at official team functions, which means attire with Nike logos on it, except for shoes, sunglasses and watches.

"We respect Nick's decision not to represent the United States at the IAAF World Championships," USATF chief public affairs officer Jill Geer said in a statement Monday. "The Statement of Conditions is part of USATF's governance documents, and its requirements are common in professional, Olympic and National Team sports, both domestically and internationally. It has been in place for years, and athletes and agents are familiar with the provisions of the document."

Symmonds -- who was a Nike endorser for seven years before he switched to Brooks in January of last year -- says it's not clear what counts as an official function, and he doesn't want to compromise his relationship with Brooks.

The key point of contention centers around the new 23-year deal with Nike that reportedly will pay USA Track & Field an average of $20 million a year beginning in 2018 and ending in 2040.

Symmonds said that elite members of USA Track & Field, who are really the ones Nike is paying for, are projected to earn only $2.46 million in total compensation in 2015, citing numbers put forth by Smith College professor of economics and esteemed sports business author Andrew Zimbalist. If those numbers are true, the elite athletes are getting roughly 8 percent of the USATF's annual revenue, compared to other major team sports athletes, who get at least 50 percent of gross revenues received, as reflected in their salary cap.

Runners are independent contractors and do not have their own union, making it hard to get similar equality that athletes in other pro team sports have.

Geer said the USATF spends roughly half of its annual budget (about $14 million to $15 million) on athletes, including prize money, cash and travel stipends, insurance deductibles, event costs and television production.

The latter two are not usually included in benefits assigned to athletes.

Geer also says athletes can wear whatever they want for every race in the USATF Championship Series, which excludes events like the World Championships and the Olympics.

"USATF pays the broadcasting bill for the athletes to wear their sponsors in USATF Championship Series meets on TV, including national championships," Geer said. "Athletes and their personal sponsors don't have to pay for that national exposure. USATF pays for it."

"Yeah, a lot of value they're giving non-Nike sponsors by letting runners wear what they want at the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic," counters Symmonds, referring to the event he competed in in Pasadena, California, in May.

By not signing the document, Symmonds is giving up on the chance to take home the winner's share of $60,000 from the IAAF and a six-figure bonus from Brooks, he says.

But he's doing this because he thinks runners who make the national team deserve a salary. He says he won't make more than $13,000 this year from USATF. Geer disputes that, saying a Tier 1 athlete like Symmonds, who qualifies based on ranking and results at the last Olympics, will earn $25,000 in stipends and benefits.

Symmonds, who was on both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams, has always pushed the limits. In 2012, he sold the rights to a temporary tattoo on his shoulder for the entire year to Hanson Dodge Creative, a marketing agency, for $11,000, and this year has been wearing another temporary tattoo of the Run Gum logo, the caffeine gum company he co-founded.

"USATF has been in active and regular discussions with athlete leadership for more than a year about the definition, benefits and obligations of professional athletes in the sport," Geer said in the statement. "Our dialog with Nick and his representatives over the last week has added to the discussion."

Although every other U.S. athlete who has qualified for the world championships in Beijing has signed the statement of conditions, Symmonds does have supporters, including high-profile hurdler Lolo Jones.

Jones, who has had an Asics deal since 2007, says she isn't as focused on the money as much as she is on fairness.

"I'm happy to wear the team outfit during competition, but they have to relax their rules with our practices and allow us to wear what we are used to wearing," Jones said. "They have to stop bullying us about wearing the outfit from the minute we leave the hotel and in all our pictures on social media."

Jones, who competed in bobsled at the 2014 Olympic Games, has more than 220,000 followers on Instagram and 400,000 followers on Twitter.

Jones also said non-Nike athletes are given an embarrassing stipend of official clothes to wear. During the London 2012 Games, Jones had to rotate two Nike bras the company gave her for the month she was there.

Others, like Dee Dee Trotter, who won bronze in the 400 meters in London in 2012, says it would have made more sense for Symmonds to organize with others instead of going out on his own.

"Nick is trying to stand up for what he believes in, but he has to do it sensibly in a business-like capacity," Trotter said. "We're not going to change things overnight, and it makes better sense to wait to address the issue at the proper time. LeBron James didn't get things done for the players by banging on the door himself."

Trotter suggests waiting until the annual meeting in December, when actual legislation can be changed.

"The statement of conditions has been in place for years," Geer said. "These are real issues and conflicts that are not specific to track and field. They are very worthy of discussion and examination. We've been working with athlete leaders for more than a year on them. It doesn't have to take a standoff to achieve progress."

"At the very least, I think this will lead to drawing up a new statement of conditions leading into the Olympics next year," Symmonds said. "At best, it will result in more substantive talks about sharing more revenue with the athletes."

When Nike first took over the official team uniform at the world championships in 1991, the company was paying $1 million for 10 years; that figure reportedly jumped to $4.5 million over the next 10 years, and the most recent deal, which runs through 2017, is worth $11 million a year.

"Nike is a proud partner and sponsor of USATF," the company said Monday in a statement. "This is a matter pertaining to the rules of the USATF National Team."