There has been an ongoing debate regarding the definition of a professional athlete in track and field over the past year. On Twitter a few months back, some track athletes and I were going back and forth sharing our ideas. It’s hard to draw the line in our sport, with no single “league” signing athletes to a contract – instead we have shoe companies sponsoring athletes, sometimes with enough money for the athlete to live very well, sometimes with only enough to supplement their income from a regular job, and sometimes with just gear and apparel. We also have the opportunity to win prize money at professional events. But there is no minimum salary and no salary cap. This is not a single payer system.
Although a solid agreement wasn’t reached via our Twitter conversation, we did agree that a good place to start is to name things that a professional athlete ISN’T and eliminate that from the definition. One that stands out to me is competing against collegiate athletes. It has been common for quite some time for collegiate athletes to compete against the professional athletes at meets throughout the regular season, whether at a college meet by design, such as the Mt SAC Relays, or at an IAAF Diamond League meet, such as the Prefontaine Classic. Collegiate athletes also compete on national teams for the World Championships and the Olympics. They they return to competition for their college team. I made my first Olympic team as a junior in college and immediately after decided to turn professional. But should this be the norm? Should collegiate athletes have the choice to compete with “professionals” while still competing for their college?
My answer is “no.” I’m not saying this to be mean or to downplay the amount of talent in college, because that is undeniable. What I am saying is, there has to be a clear distinction between the two stages of the sport. The fact that we have athletes weaving in and out among the two levels hurts the public perception of our sport and allows us to continue to be viewed as “amateur.” College athletes (and high school ones for that matter) are asked not to take money if they place high enough at an event offering prize money, so as to keep their amateur status. But what good does that do? The athlete doesn’t get the money they earned. The other athletes, who are no longer amateur and could take the money, lost an opportunity to win it. The meet director, or the governing body in charge of the meet, gets to keep the money! This is just one of many incentives for the “powers that be” to continue to allow true amateurs and professionals to compete against each other – the more amateurs in the meet, the less likely it will be to have to pay out prize money.
Just think about that. The collegiate system consistently churns out world class athletes. Those athletes may be tempted to go pro, especially after winning a medal at Worlds or the Olympics, but it isn’t an easy decision. The university’s athletic budget is ample and provides the athlete with food, room and board, state of the art training facilities, travel, a coaching staff, and the list of resources go on. The professional athlete has to give that up, and there are many rules about where they can train, who they can train with, whose facilities and coaches they can use, and so on. And nothing is free or guaranteed anymore. And then they can go to the World Championships, get edged out for the last prize money spot (8th place) and lose $4000 to someone who is still an amateur and couldn’t take the money anyway.
The Olympic Games are a different scenario because no prize money is given to anyone. This is a problem with the IOC being determined to keep up a front of the Games being amateur, which plays to everyone’s nostalgia regarding the Olympics and what it means. We all know, however, that the Olympics have complete changed since the days of the first Games. It has become a multi-billion dollar business, where the sponsors and the IOC continue to mark and expand their exclusive territory. And yet the athletes are still only paid if their national governing body or their personal sponsor decides to pay them. But this is a different debate for another day.
So my thought is this: If you are a high school or collegiate athlete and want to remain and amateur and continue to compete for your school, you are fully amateur and can no longer compete against professional athletes in events awarding prize money, including the World Championships. It’s a clear line we can draw. The major sports all draw this line – football, basketball, baseball, etc. I consider this the first step in defining what a professional athlete in track and field is.
What do YOU think? Let’s keep this dialog open – Comment below or tweet your ideas or opinions to me @LashindDemus with the hashtag #WhatIsPro