Lack of Agent Regulations Could Prove Perilous for Track and Field Athletes

By Nicole Leach, a 1L at the Temple University Beasley School of Law and former UCLA track star. In 2006, while a student-athlete at UCLA, Leach earned gold on the World Junior 4×400 relay team in Beijing. In 2007 she was the NCAA 400m hurdle champion and represented the US at the World Championships and earned two bronze medals at the Pan Am Games. She was an Olympic Trials qualifier in 2008 and NCAA champion again in 2009.

Unlike the world-famous Usain Bolt, most track and field athletes do not earn millions of dollars. Therefore, obtaining a qualified and competent agent is of extreme concern for those athletes trying to maximize their earning potential and protect their best interests.

Imagine a track and field athlete — two months after winning an Olympic gold medal — on the phone trying to negotiate their endorsement deal with a multi-billion dollar shoe company’s representative. Imagine a World Champion gold medalist, struggling to get accepted into races, because they decided to hire a friend as their agent so they could save money. Believe it or not, the sport of track and field not only allows this but does very little to prevent identical situations. The rules governing sports agents in track and field are very relaxed, and it is unclear if that is for the athletes’ benefit or disadvantage.

The rules that govern agents are defined by the sport’s national governing body, USA Track and Field (USATF). USATF refers to what most would call an agent as an athlete representative (AR). An AR is one who assists track athletes, in planning, arranging and negotiating their competition programs. USATF requires authorization from an AR, which requires an AR applicant to fill out an application, pay an application fee and satisfactorily complete an administered exam.

To be eligible for this, an AR applicant must be an individual, with “proper experience in athletics, demonstrate the requisite integrity to act as a fiduciary for athletes, demonstrate sufficient education and knowledge of the activity of ARs, not with in the previous ten years, have been convicted of a felony, other crime of moral turpitude, anti-doping functional equivalent in any other jurisdiction,” and a member USATF. (some requirements excluded).

The world governing authority for track and field is the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF). IAAF requires that an AR undergo the identical requirements as stated above but only if the AR represents an athlete that is listed on IAAF’s Top-30 list at the end of a season. AR’s representing athletes not on this list are not required to be certified, but can choose to be if they want.

Does this mean that a 45-year-old former high school track athlete, who has no education beyond high school, can be an AR if they passed the exam? The terms “Proper experience in athletics;” “demonstrate the requisite integrity to act as a fiduciary for athletes;” and “demonstrate sufficient education and knowledge of the activity of ARs” are pretty vague.

In addition, many US Olympians, past, present and future aren’t even aware of the relaxed rules. Most who fall within the top-30 list at the end of the 2012 year were not aware of the rule that they could not maintain a business relationship with an IAAF uncertified AR. On top of that, a few athletes and AR’s on that list are not certified and there is no public information as to whether those AR’s or athletes have been sanctioned.

Why might such relaxed requirements be acceptable by athletes, or anyone involved for that matter? Especially when other sports agents governing bodies like the NFLPA have very stringent qualifications such as, requiring all agents to attain a graduate degree.

The difference between track and most sports is the individual aspects of the sport. In track and field one person’s opportunities, success, or even failures, is not affected by another. Track and Field lacks a team aspect. For example, as great as Kobe Bryant is he could not obtain an Olympic gold medal, or any medal for that matter, without at least four other players. Only four (men’s and women’s 4×100 and 4×400 relays) out of the 47 track events at the Olympics require a track athlete to rely on another runner. Approximately nine athletes out of the 60+ on the US Olympic Tack and Field team were competing only for a relay medal, which made them dependent on another. Typically, a track athlete’s success is not only independent but it thrives off of the lack of dependency. A competitors’ setback makes it easier for another to prosper.

This independent aspect of track and field places more importance on the AR’s role. In many cases certain athletes get more opportunities solely because of their agents capabilities.

For example, if runner A’s AR is inadequate and runner B’s AR is not, then ideally and usually runner B ends up with a better sponsorship contract and better race opportunities than runner A, sometimes even if runner A is a known to be a better performing athlete. There aren’t any studies showing this outcome, but there are various examples where it can be inferred that a more qualified AR has the ability to create more opportunities for their designated athletes.

In spite of the lack of studies, this outcome that a more qualified agent creates better opportunities is essentially the purpose for an AR. One would assume that in every sport an AR is supposed to be the person who helps creates opportunities for an athlete, given the talent the athlete possesses. This would possibly explain why most AR requirements in other sports are well established — to prevent a wide spectrum of quality agents.

For example, two athletes with identical talents, entering into a professional sport, with different agents/ARs, ideally should not have to worry about receiving improper treatment because one agent is grossly more competent than the other. Unfortunately, the rules discussed in USATF and IAAF’s AR requirement section do not prevent an athlete from this type of disadvantage.

However, the relaxed wording in these rules can possibly benefit an athlete. Unlike other sports in the US, the average salary for track athletes is far from the half-million dollar range. So sometimes it is financially beneficial for an athlete to hire mom, dad, husband or wife to be their AR. Also, there is a trust issue, when hiring an AR that a family member resolves.

If there is no obvious monitoring of ARs behaviors, an athlete is left to resolve any disputes on their own. Does that mean that mom, dad, or spouse needs to be qualified? Who is to say that an athlete should have to go out and seek a “qualified” AR and pay him or her a 10-20 percnet fee, and run the risk of issues about money missing? Who should control this, USATF, IAAF or should the guidelines remain loosely defined and regulated, leaving an athlete to hire who they see fit?

One possible solution to this problem is a national union, who governs and certifies ARs. If an athlete knows that there are certain rules governing ARs and penalties enforced to keep ARs in line, then every athlete is exposed to identical opportunities as long as they perform to their potential. Also the lack of trust factor or the, “I should hire my dad to save more money” mindset, may diminish, and the ARs benefit because they do not have to compete with, family members.

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