Vin Lananna Files Formal Grievance Against USATF

Vin Lananna has had little cause to celebrate the “we” of USATF of late. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

AT A MEETING held during the indoor nationals, USATF’s Board Of Directors opted to take no action on federation President Vin Lananna’s request for recision of the temporary administrative leave the Board imposed on him more than a year ago. The matter of Lananna’s status—a subject well kept in view by Ken Goe of the Portland Oregonian and Ken Stone of the San Diego Times—will now move into the purview of USATF’s National Athletic Board of Review, with which Lananna filed a formal grievance on February 14.

The expected near-term pathway is a mandatory mediation procedure followed—if no resolution is found there—by a ruling from the review board, most likely in May or June. Meanwhile calendar pages are turning fast in the 5-year window from ’16 until the start of the ’21 World Championships in Eugene, the staging of which Lananna was instrumental in advancing. Months and years of infighting instead of pulling together in the leadup to ’21 is not what Oregon Associate AD Lananna had in mind.

From ’05, when Lananna arrived at Oregon as director of the Duck program, he worked methodically, with a vision, to accomplish something bigger. “I didn’t come to Oregon to try to coach teams and get athletes to run fast and all that stuff,” he once told T&FN. “I came to Oregon to try to change the sport of track & field.” For the nonce that vision, at least crucial components of it, sits quagmired in an all-too-familiar spot for the sport, that of backroom rivalries, power struggles and negative headlines that have nothing to do with running, jumping or throwing.

“For me, 2021 has to be a culmination, the focal point,” Lananna told us in ’16, weeks before he served as men’s Olympic coach for Rio and half a year before his election as USATF President in December of that year. “It is not the beginning. If we just have a track meet in 2021, we will have missed the whole opportunity. It’s a buildup for the next 5 years to put track meets in that space for the U.S. athletes so that when people come to the World Championships season, they not only know the United States team but they know that there’s a big meet that’s going to happen and they’re ready for it. It should be an opportunity for the athletes to build their brand.”

Now, nearly 4 years on, there’s no harmonious collaboration, no vitalized pulling together, and no discernible new spark for the sport in a promotions sense.

In the immediate afterglow of the IAAF’s surprise April ’15 decision to site the ’21 Worlds in Eugene, Lananna and USATF CEO Max Siegel sang from the same sheet music. The USATF Board was an amen chorus. “We thank President Diack and the IAAF Council for entrusting this meet to the United States,” Siegel said at the time. “Team USA has established itself as the most successful track & field team in the world. We now have the opportunity and duty to rise to the same level as hosts of these championships.” Lananna gave voice to the descant: “We believe we can ignite a spark that will leave a lasting legacy for track & field for generations to come.”

Now, nearly 4 years on, there’s no harmonious collaboration, no vitalized pulling together, and no discernible new spark for the sport in a promotions sense. Lananna is now 13 months into the “temporary administrative leave” imposed by USATF’s Board Of Directors, which declared him “temporarily unable to serve” over a conflict of interest related to the U.S. Justice Department’s “pending investigation into the award of the 2021 World Championships…”

The Board stipulated Lananna’s leave would last until the DOJ investigation of Eugene’s World Championships bid (first reported in the summer of ’17) is resolved. “USATF has no reason to believe TrackTown and/or Mr. Lananna have done anything wrong and understand that they have been told that they are not a target of the investigation,” Board chair Steve Miller said in a press release at the time.

But those in Lananna’s corner categorize the move as a ploy to run out the clock on his Presidential term and check his influence. DOJ/FBI investigations are just that, investigations, not final judicial rulings. Principals and witnesses are interviewed, evidence is weighed, but public declarations that inquiries are closed are almost never issued, new facts can always emerge. USATF’s Board, fully lawyered up as it should be, knows that. Hence, say critics of the Board’s action, the intent was to sideline Lananna permanently. Lananna met in person with DOJ investigators in mid-’17, answered all their questions, and all indications are that he has never been contacted again about the matter. Yet Lananna’s “administrative leave” stands.

Having relinquished his TrackTown role last year along with any executive authority within the Oregon ’21 Worlds organizing body before that, Lananna filed his February grievance. That document, drafted by attorneys, alleges that then-USATF Board Chair Miller approached Lananna in July of ’18 with an offer of reinstatement based on conditions unrelated to the ’21 Worlds bidding process. These included, per the grievance: “a demand for [Lananna’s] pledge of loyalty to [Miller] as Board chair and to incumbent USATF leadership, including a promise to actively support Bylaws changes that would (1) extend the term of [Miller] as Board Chair through 2021, (2) elevate [acting USATF President] Mike Conley to permanent Vice Chair and extend his term as a director through 2021, and (3) extend [Lananna’s] own term as President into 2021 beyond the term for which he was elected by the Membership.”

The grievance holds that Miller’s alleged proposal “would essentially vitiate the 2020 election for these key leadership positions,” and that Lananna rejected it, bringing on “a tirade of ad hominem attacks” from Miller in response. “In short,” the grievance holds, “[Miller since term-limited out of his Chair position] and the Board were happy to have Mr. Lananna serve as President if he would kowtow to them instead of representing the Membership that elected him, and advance their self-interested motives to retain control over USATF.”

This purported intent and Miller’s alleged proffer of a bargain have elicited little surprise among activist USATF members who attended the ’16 Annual Meeting at which Lananna gained the presidency. The perception then was that a faction on the USATF Board as well as Siegel and executive members of his staff favored Lananna’s election opponent Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who withdrew her candidacy shortly before the vote.

The 25-page grievance argues on other grounds, as well, that the suspension imposed on Lananna—a collegiate coach and athletic administrator for the past 44 years—violates USATF’s bylaws and operating regulations as well as Virginia law (USATF is incorporated in that state) and basic fiduciary duty. The grievance requests Lananna’s reinstatement as President and Board Chair, that the February ’18 Board resolution be revoked, a Board-written and signed statement acknowledging the resolution’s invalidity, an apology and reimbursement of attorney’s fees and costs.

This spring Lananna’s fate will hang in the balance. Whatever the final outcome, does anyone doubt headlines about federation politics will continue to bounce coverage of Team USA’s brilliant athletes “below the fold” on webpages (these days the sport is virtually invisible in most print papers) up to and through the Worlds of ’21? Does anyone doubt valuable promotional time has been lost?

As Lananna also said back in ’16, “We have to promote Team USA as it’s due. If we had any other sport where the United States completely dominated [the way ours does internationally] it would be very popular.”

Meanwhile, you can bet USATF is paying its attorneys. □