Opinion: USATF At Crossroads, Again

Interview with Ed Koch…

Introduction by Becca Peter…
At the upcoming USATF Annual Meeting (Orlando, Florida, December 02–05), the membership will once again be asked to approve changes to our bylaws that will result in radical changes to our organization.

If these changes pass, the membership of USATF will no longer have a meaningful voice in the organization, and the system of checks and balances that has served our organization well for decades will disappear.

I wrote this article last year and I stand by it today: Opinion: Vote No On USATF Losing Its Voice In Governance

Below is an interview with Ed Koch regarding this year’s proposed Law and Legislation changes.


Ed Koch is a retired Attorney-CPA who has been involved in USATF for forty years. He served as Law & Legislation Chair from 1989-2000, Treasurer from 2000-2009, and Organizational Services Chair from 2009-2016. He is currently the Youth representative on the Law & Legislation Committee.

Q: What is on the Law & Legislation agenda at the 2021 USATF Annual Meeting?

A: The most important items are three Temporary Amendments that were defeated last year. The Board approved them again at the behest of the USOPC and so the delegates will need to vote again on whether to make them permanent.

Q: What are these Temporary Amendments?

A: They are Amendments to Bylaw Article 21, Bylaw Article 10, and Regulation 16-H.

The Article 21 Amendment is the most important because it would disenfranchise the membership by doing three things.

First, Temporary Amendments by the Board would continue indefinitely instead of merely to the next Annual Meeting. Second, even if eventually voted down by the delegates, the Board could override the delegates and make the Temporary Amendment permanent anyway. Third, for all other amendment proposals, the Board could block a proposal from even going to the delegates for a vote.

In short there would no longer be any checks and balances. The Board could make any change for any reason, even if the membership opposes the change. For example, board members could vote to extend their own terms beyond the current term limits.

The Article 10 Amendment provides that the Board picks its own Chair instead of the President automatically becoming the Board Chair. The President was the automatic Chair from 1980 to 2008, but in 2008 the USOPC began to take issue with this practice and our bylaws have since changed several times. As a result of the Temporary Amendment, Mike Conley is now the Board Chair instead of Vin Lannana.

The Regulation 16-H Amendment changes the Law & Legislation Committee in two ways. First, up to now, the President has always appointed the six at-large members of the committee (including the chair) just as is done with most administrative committees. The amendment splits the appointments three & three between the Board Chair and President with the Board Chair appointing the L&L Chair. Second, the Temporary Amendment creates term limits for L&L members. In our view, the change in appointments stacks the committee.

Q: Are there alternatives to these Temporary Amendments?

A: Yes, Jim Murphy, Bob Hersh and myself have offered a compromise L&L Item to each of the three Temporary Amendments. So far, the Board seems to show no interest in these compromises. If the Temporary Amendments do not pass, the compromises may be considered.

Q: What is the history of all this?

A: From 1980 to 2007, the USOC (now USOPC) pretty much left USATF alone for several reasons. One was that our sport did well at winning Olympic medals. Another is that unlike the National Governing Bodies (NGB) of smaller sports primarily funded by the USOC, USATF only received about 20% of its funding from the USOC – that percentage has since dropped to about 11% in 2021.

In 2007-2008, after the USOC restructured itself, it sought to restructure the NGB of each sport as well. Some of the changes were reasonable and as a USATF Officer, I supported them, and they eventually were passed by the delegates. Interestingly, the USOC-USATF correspondence at the time acknowledged that the delegates had the final say approving the changes and neither side objected to it.

On February 12, 2020, the USOPC Counsel sent USATF a letter seeking further changes. It expressed a negative (and inaccurate) view of the Law & Legislation Committee and expressly sought term limits for L&L members, and specifically sought to have the Board pick its own Chair again. However, it did not expressly seek amendments to Article 21 or to change the appointment process of L&L members.

Following the USOC letter, the Board’s newly formed bylaws subcommittee drafted proposed Temporary Amendments which were required to go to the Law & Legislation for comment before Board passage. Their original draft did not seek to amend Article 21. After L&L comments, the Board passed a revised draft as Temporary Amendments in the Summer of 2020 that included the amendments to Article 21 for the first time. The amendments to Article 21, Article 10, and Regulation 16-H did not pass at the 2020 Annual Meeting.

Q: Why does the USOPC want the change to Article 21 passed?

A: If the change is passed, the USOPC can demand any USATF change it wants by giving an ultimatum to the Board. There would be no checks and balances left to stop it. The American principle of the Consent of the Governed would no longer apply.

Keep in mind that the NGBs of many smaller sports only have elite programs. If the USOPC decides that USATF should get rid of its 56 Associations, the membership could not block it. Or if the USOPC decides that USATF should jettison all its programs except the High Performance Division, the membership could not prevent it.

Of course, the current USOPC leadership may claim it has no such intent. But because of the recent scandals, the USOPC leadership has been in a revolving door of late, and there is an active request before Congress that they dissolve the current USOPC Board of Directors. In a couple years, a new USOPC leadership might give ultimatums to USATF that even the current USOPC might not.

Q: Why does the USOPC not accept the current USATF structure?

A: The USOPC has few volunteers. It once had a single excellent developmental program: the USA Olympic Festival from 1981 to 1995 which was a multi-sport domestic mini-Olympics held in non-Olympic years. It dropped the program because of the cost. Now all it does is to raise money – not enough of which goes back to the sports – and look over the shoulder of the NGB of each sport. Given the recent scandals, it does not do a very good job of it.

Too often, the USOPC seems to think that one size fits all for each NGB. But our sport is unique in its breadth and diversity. Track & Field and Swimming usually win half the USA medals at the Summer Olympics, and our sport has managed to remain largely scandal-free. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

My experience with the USOPC – especially when I was a USATF Officer – is that USOPC is focused on the short-term, specifically, how many medals the USA will win in the current Olympiad. USATF, however, needs to be concerned about the infrastructure of the sport which affects how many medals we may win in 2028, 2032, and 2036 as well as in 2024. The USOPC seems to assume our Olympians of the future will just magically appear to win medals.

The two analogies that I think are appropriate are the pipeline and the pyramid.

Our sport’s infrastructure must provide a pipeline which develops young athletes who will be Olympian in 2028, 2032, and 2036. Each of those future Olympians need to be introduced to our sport before other (often non-Olympic) sports try to pull them away. Each of those future Olympians need thousands of other athletes to compete against, thousands of Officials for their meets, and a whole bunch of coaches during their careers.

Another model is the pyramid. The stronger the base as a foundation, the stronger our future Olympians will be at the top.

Q: Are there any other reasons for the Amendment to Article 21?

A: We have been told that the Board has a special duty because they have a fiduciary responsibility. My response to that is to point out that their fiduciary responsibility is to the membership. It seems ironic that the Board wants to disenfranchise that same membership.

The USOPC has also threatened its certification and its 11% funding of USATF if it does not get its way. I do not think the USOPC is so stupid to do any such thing to one of its most successful and clean NGBs. However, since some of the funding goes to our elite athletes, it has convinced the athlete leadership to support the Temporary Amendments.

Q: Are our current bylaws compliant with the USOPC NGB Compliance Standards?

A: The NGB standards are a moving target. For example, the first time we were told of the proposal to change Article 21 was the summer of 2020. For 39 years, Article 21 was okay.

Of course, it has not helped to have a revolving door of USOPC leadership made necessary by the scandals. With each changeover, there has been the potential for different interpretation and mandates.

After the USOPC letter dated 2/12/20 was made available to the Law & Legislation Committee, Jim Murphy and I wrote to the USOPC Counsel to correct his misimpression of our committee that caused him to seek some of the changes. He did not bother to respond.

I do believe the view that one size fits all for NGBs is fundamentally flawed. What works for Badminton or Bobsledding does not necessarily work for track & field.

In short, I would put the record of USATF management over the past four decades against the USOPC’s record anytime.

Q: So, what happens next?

A: The Law & Legislation Committee will take a vote on the Temporary Amendments which will probably be a split vote. No matter which way the committee votes, the Temporary Amendments will probably go to the floor at the Sunday morning final session for discussion and an up-or-down vote. Each Temporary Amendment needs a 2/3s vote of approval to become permanent. If they fail, the compromise items may be considered.

The compromise to Article 21 would let the delegates block a Temporary Amendment but the Board could veto an L&L item that passes. In short, both sides would need to approve a change.

The compromise to Article 10 would designate the President as Temporary Chair until and unless the Board decided otherwise. Tracy Sundlun has submitted a similar compromise that would require a 2/3s vote of the Board to name a different chair.

The compromise to Regulation 16-H would keep the term limits but return to the President the responsibility of appointing the L&L at-large members including the Chair. Note that regardless of the outcome, Jim Murphy, Bob Hersh, and I want Mitch Garner to continue as L&L Chair.

Q: If the Temporary Amendments pass, what do you think will happen?

A: The worst case scenario would be that we see radical changes to USATF in the next few years that harm the pipeline and pyramid and harm our Olympic performances in the long-term. The slightly less-bad alternative is that the USATF structure does not change so dramatically but weakens because it becomes a top-down organization and many of its volunteers and members walk away in frustration. This too will hurt USATF and our sport in the long run.

There is one other recourse. The USOPC is currently in the doghouse of the U.S. Congress. Last year, amendments were passed to the Amateur Sports Act which is Federal Law. The amendments give Congress greater oversight of the USOPC. Recent Congressional hearings concerning the USOPC have not been friendly given the scandals that have occurred. Given all this, it would be interesting to see how the USOPC would explain to Congress why it is a good thing to disenfranchise the membership of a sport with a much better record than its own.

Q: Why are you so concerned about all this?

A: I have been involved in USATF and our sport for forty years and see this as a crossroads moment. I don’t expect to be around in 2036, but I would like USATF and the sport to be in good shape for the long term when I eventually take my leave. ◻︎