Max Siegel was introduced as the new CEO of USA Track & Field yesterday. It caught me by surprise, and by that I mean both the choice and the timing.
If the name sounds a bit familiar, it should, but only a bit. A man with a strong marketing and entertainment background, including NASCAR, Siegel stepped down from the USATF board of directors just six months ago to accept a contract as USATF’s marketing consultant. This naturally gave rise to questions about conflict of interest, ones that were immediately asked at yesterday afternoon’s media teleconference.
(Another question about conflicts of interest is about the search firm. The previous and unfruitful CEO search was run by Bialla & Associates, but less than a month ago this search was handed over to Columbus-based PMM Agency, run by Karen Blackwell. For the money paid to PPM, they headhunted a guy who was already right there. Blackwell appears to be a friend of USATF president Stephanie Hightower—and again, if that name sounds familiar, it should. Karen is the daughter of the notorious J. Kenneth Blackwell, the former Ohio Secretary of State whose conflicts of interest while in office were legion.)
Outside of the PR releases coming from USATF, the most positive comments I’ve seen about Siegel as the new CEO are of the “we’ll give him a chance and hope for the best” variety. There’s a lot of pessimism.
Mostly, I don’t think this is any reflection on Siegel himself, but the situation in which track and field finds itself. It’s hard to find people in track who have an upbeat attitude about USATF, so much so that if we brought Abraham Lincoln back to life and gave him the CEO job, even he’d be given a cold and skeptical reception.
I live in the heart of the Rust Belt, and I’m a track fan, and those two seem to go hand in hand. Both require a certain resignation about inevitable decline from a glorious past to an uncertain and possibly dystopian future. Track and field once filled stadiums from coast to coast, got front-page headlines, and commanded serious TV coverage. That’s not quite how it is these days. Likewise, Detroit was once the fifth-largest city in America and one of the most important economic engines of the nation, but it’s not that way any more. In each case there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s also true that the decline was unavoidable given increased competition.
What about the leaders of the de facto capital of the Rust Belt? Two of Detroit’s last three mayors are a study in contrasts. The current mayor, Dave Bing, a former Pistons star and captain of industry, is by all accounts doing a fantastic job given the challenges that Detroit faces. He has made enemies and pissed people off, but that’s unavoidable since Bing often has to make decisions in which there are no good choices. He is everything that we in the Rust Belt wish ourselves to be: quiet, hard working, and giving the best of what we have to our communities. That’s how many of us in track and field also see ourselves, or at least our ideal selves.
Bing won an election over a stopgap from the previous Detroit mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was removed from office before his term was over. This is not the place to list off Kilpatrick’s many transgressions; I’ll just say that he did not represent anyone’s ideal self, and his tenure as mayor introduced at least as many problems to Detroit as it solved.
I’m not insinuating that past leaders of USA Track and Field have been either of these two kinds of leaders. I’m saying that leaders in difficult times can be very good or very bad. Most often they’re somewhere in between.
And, of course, there’s only so much any one person can do. Mayor Bing has to deal with a state government that does not always have his best interests at heart. Much of the economic conditions in Detroit and the region are beyond his control as well. Likewise, Max Siegel has to deal with a board of directors that may not always share his vision for the organization (whatever it may be), and high school and college track are massively important but lie totally outside USATF’s control.
There’s a feeling of optimism in the Detroit area for the first time in a generation. We know things will never be like they were before, but we feel like things may be getting better. We have some hope, that last thing in Pandora’s box that gives us what we need to fight to make things better. That’s what track and field in America really needs from a leader: a feeling of hope, that things are turning around.