Updated at 4:55 p.m. March 16, 2015
SANTA MONICA — Three months after their annual convention, directors of USA Track & Field Saturday reaffirmed their controversial decision to nominate USATF President Stephanie Hightower for a leadership role with the sport’s world governing body.
By a 12-1 vote, the board agreed not to rescind its earlier decision, despite a 392-70 delegate vote in December favoring Bob Hersh, 75, for membership on the 27-member IAAF Council — where he is a senior vice president on the powerful Executive Committee.
The dissenter was three-time Olympic racewalker Curt Clausen, one of three active athletes on the board — and a former resident of the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. William Shelton, a Wall Street veteran, was the new vote backing Hightower.
“I was not convinced there was a compelling reason to overturn the vote of the membership,” Clausen said, “and I maintained that position today. The vote wasn’t a decision on who to pick today. It was about whether to rescind the earlier decision.”
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- Video: Curt Clausen, USATF board dissenter on IAAF issue
- Video: Journalist Alan Abrahamson on Hersh column
- Video: USATF director Mickey Carter on IAAF Council issue
Clausen said that in January, the Athletes Advisory Committee he represents voted 13-6 (with four abstaining) to call on the board to reconsider its Dec. 5 decision picking Hightower.
Board members took issue with Hersh’s argument that a newcomer to the IAAF Council had no chance of being elected to the more influential vice presidency. Several said it was racist or sexist to make the case that Hightower, who is black, shouldn’t be USATF’s nominee.
Mickey Carter, a CBS executive on the board, was one of several black members to voice offense.
“This reinforces for me the need for change,” Carter was quoted as saying by the Orange County Register. “I’m thrilled this body has the courage to change some of these things.”
Hersh responded that race was not a part of his earlier pitch — but that gender was, saying he would be remiss if he didn’t mention the “political reality” at the IAAF on electability to the Executive Committee. He said he didn’t mean to offend.
But Becky Oakes, a top official in high school sports, said the United States should promote women as leaders within the IAAF, despite its male culture.
“This board did what the board should have done,” said Oakes, who is white. “This body had to do the heavy lifting” in considering the merits of Hersh and Hightower.
Steven Miller, the board’s vice chair, gave an impassioned statement that the board had the duty to vote as it wished — even if it went against constituent feelings. He said constitutent groups can remove their board members.
He likened the December vote to several presidential elections, including John F. Kennedy’s, where he said the opposing candidate got more popular votes but didn’t win the White House.
Hersh’s argument to the board that he was a better pick was made in open session. A vote to move to executive (closed) session was defeated in a show of hands. Hightower was among those wanting the debate to be public — contrary to Hersh’s wish it be closed so he could discuss confidential IAAF issues.
Hightower, speaking to media after the meeting, said she still needs “to go through the process” of gaining election to the IAAF Council. She said she would “utilize the relationships that I have, the relationships that I built up, the good will that we have built up as a federation in the last couple of years.”
Replying to a question on her being targeted for impeachment and removal, Hightower said she would stand on the merits of her six years as president, taking it “from a $13 million [a year] organization to a $30 million” group. “We’re now paying officials, which has never been done before. We have increased the prize money for our athletes” and attracted international competition to the United States.
“If people don’t appreciate the fact that we’re trying to run our business as a business, as opposed to the may we maybe ran it in the past … then there’s not anything else I can do.”
Hightower said she keeps the athletes “foremost at the center” of her decision-making, and the organization was secondary. She said she didn’t take criticism personally. “This is about how we move our organization forward.
“The only thing I ask is we do it in a civil manner. Have I been afforded that over the last couple months? No.”
Several USATF officials were queried about whether Hightower could stand for election to the IAAF Council if she were removed by impeachment. None could immediately answer the question.
In the board’s first meeting since its 11-1 vote for Hightower at the Anaheim convention, directors disregarded an outcry from local associations, online message boards and a 3-month-old petition.
“The board can do the right thing this weekend and reverse its decision,” the page said. “If you care about this issue, take a moment and spread the word with #WeAreUSATF.”
Johnson, known as Wejo and a former national-class distance runner, posted an editorial lashing the board.
His comments came a month after a rebuke of directors from Carlsbad’s Willie Banks, the former world-record-holder in the triple jump. Banks, who served on the board for six years, ending in October, had labeled the board vote “totally unforgivable.”
On Sunday, he told Times of San Diego: “I stand by my previous statement.”
On a Track & Field News message board, one thread devoted to the Hersh issue had been visited close to 15,000 times, and had more than 130 comments Friday night.
The board defended its move in a 1,000-word statement Dec. 9 that concluded: “We follow USATF procedures and make hard choices. We recognize that this choice was unpopular among those in attendance at the Annual Meeting, but we believe we made the right choice for the organization for the right reasons. We are optimistic that the coming year will continue the growth of the organization at all levels.”
On the eve of the board’s meeting at the Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel, a veteran track official told Times of San Diego that if the board didn’t reverse its decision, “USATF will be even further out of the IAAF loop with resulting damage to U.S. prestige and influence.”
The source — wanting to be identified as “a parent, athlete, coach, volunteer, official, promoter and administrator very concerned about our sport” — said Friday that “from what I have seen at many of the recent world championships, Stephanie consistently has acted as an arrogant and ugly American marching into meetings like royalty and marching out in the middle with [USATF CEO] Max [Siegel] in tow.”
“If past history is any indication of future actions,” the source said, “she would be a disaster even if she could get elected to the IAAF Council — which is not a sure thing at all.”
The source speculated via email that former world-class hurdler Hightower, 56, “just woke up one day recently and suddenly realized that she was going to lose all her privileges and PERKS at the end of her [term, ending in 2016] and set out on a campaign to somehow retain them at whatever cost to the credibility of USATF and its administration.”
The final word on whether an American returns to the IAAF Council will come in late August at a congress being held alongside the IAAF World Athletics Championships in Beijing, China.
Earlier at the board meeting, members raised concerns about a letter written by USATF Youth Committee Chairman Lionel Leach, expressing outrage over a Hightower letter to her Law & Legislation Committee appointee Tim Baker. (She said her “cover letter” was part of a broader context of writing to all committee chairs asking advice on who to appoint to panels and who to remove.)
“Obviously this conversation was spurred by the mass email that youth chair Lionel Leach sent to the youth email list,” said a Facebook post by Becca Gillespy Peter, a USATF activist and meet organizer, one of a dozen observers of the board meeting. “The National Office has received many complaints about it and even a threat of legal action. The email allegedly was sent to some youth athletes.”*
“These kids idolize this body,” said board member Sam Germany, who referred to Leach’s letter as “bullying.”
Hightower wanted to know who had access to the email database, and told USATF board counsel Larry James to come up with a policy regarding the email database.
Also attending the meeting were Olympic sports writers with opposing views — Scott Reid of the Orange County Register and Alan Abrahamson, formerly with NBCSports.com and the Los Angeles Times and now with 3wiresports.com.
Reid wrote in December: “Hightower is the poster child both for why U.S. track, despite its competitive success, has continued to fade from the radar of mainstream America, and an increasingly all-too-common class of Olympic and international sports officials who have betrayed what’s best for their sport to chase their own self-serving agendas.”
But late Saturday, Abrahamson wrote: “The decent thing now would be for Hersh to concede. In politics, there are winners and losers. He has lost. Now he should do the decent thing, and the sooner the better, for the sake of the sport — and the organizations — he purports to love.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly depicted who got the Lionel Leach email.