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Friday, June 29, 2007

USATF membership

A thread on Let's Run asked "USATF Membership - What do you get for your $30?"

For an athlete it's absolutely necessary, but I'm not at that competitive level. I replied that on discounts alone I've gotten the $30 back and then some, which is a good enough reason for any fan to join. The discounts aren't why I'm a member, but rather the same sense of civic duty that gets me to the polls every election.

When I first joined up a few years ago, I expected to get a ballot for USATF elections in the mail at some point. My wife is a member of USA Triathlon and that's how they run their elections. Unions aren't the most democratic institutions around, but I get a ballot from mine every year too. Ditto for the Sierra Club and all kinds of other organizations. But nada from USATF.

Just the other day on the T&FN board, MJR shot off the following:
It only looks to get worse in the coming years with the pending installation of Stephanie Hightower as the latest puppet at the helm when elections are held in 08. If she wins, expect the situation for the underloved events to worsen and a continued malaise to strangle the organization. She can barely be professional in meetings, using all sorts of foul language and racial insults to rule from the bully pulpit, how can we expect that she is the person to lead such an organization and represent it professionally?
This is not the first time I've read such a criticism of Hightower and I have yet to find anyone who sticks up for her. Others in leadership positions, such as Brooks Johnson, have some pretty strong detractors too. So I thought, how in the heck do these people get elected? I mean, both as a rhetorical question and a real one?

I looked through the USATF bylaws. From what I could glean, elections for national positions are held at the USATF convention. Those who vote are delegates selected by each association. There is no direct election by the rank-and-file membership; if you do not participate in association meetings, you have absolutely no say in the selection of our leaders (and you might not if you show up to the meetings anyway).

If there's anything that observers of US politics over the last few decades have learned, it's that a well-organized constituency can exert quite a bit of power in any organization. Thirty-five years ago, the thought that conservative Christians would someday throw their weight around in the Republican party was ludicrous; almost the same could be said of internet-based activists in the Democratic party in the early 90s. But in each case, it took a long time and a lot of organizing.

Could USATF be similarly transformed? Its bylaws appear to make change an even slower and more difficult process than in our notoriously-slow Congress. The fans, athletes and coaches who both know about the system and care are few and far between, usually busy with other projects, and many are not well-heeled enough to spend a week at a national convention on their own dime. So it might be impossible to do anything. But dammit, it's worth a try.

What do do and how to do it is beyond me. Others have experience with political bodies and organizing via the internet. It may be a pipedream. But if someone told you ten years ago that a wierd minimalist website with and its companion message board could begin to transform the US distance running community, you'd think he was nuts. But the Johnson brothers actually pulled it off.

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