As it turns out, USA-Swimming and the USOC were not as far appart on the ill-fated Athlete Partnership Plan as it seemed on original reading.
Plenty has been written about the plan, its revision, and its subsequent rejection by the USOC, as well as what is fair for the athletes. Most observers feel that it’s fair for the elite, National Team swimmers to receive a pay increase from their current $21,000 to at least the $42,000 plan that was the final submission to the USOC.
The big sticking point over the plan basically came down to the swimmers’ reluctance to sign a contract that would give USA-Swimming ownership over their name and image rights for marketing purposes. There has been much debate over what is the appropriate relationship between USA-Swimming and the National Team athletes, and whether the contracts that the USOC and USA-Swimming marketing departments were exploitation or fair trade for an increase in pay.
In a discussion that I had with Swimming World Magazine’s Garrett McCaffrey the other day, I basically came to the conclusion that I didn’t know that either plan (with or without contractual agreements) was right for the athletes, nor whether either one was wrong for the athletes. I laid out to him that I basically had absoutely no idea what the intent of the plan was, what the verbiage of the plan was, what the true financial implications were, and what exactly was going on behind the scenes of USA-Swimming. But clearly there was an information gap, because most outside observers seemed to view the contractual signature as a non-issue, while most insiders seemed to think that squashing it was a no-brainer.
As it turns out, that was exactly the problem with the APP. In a great interview between Garrett and recently-turned pro Tyler Clary on Split Time, Garrett got down to the nuts and the bolts of the issue.
There was a huge lack of communication on the agreement between the USOC, USA-Swimming, the athletes, the media, and the swimming public. Even Clary revealed that his initial out-right objections had been assuaged via a meeting with USA-Swimming marketing officials.
In fact, the sides weren’t all that far apart at all. The problem came down to the wording and intent of the agreements. In the draft of the agreements with the contractual rights, USA-Swimming left the wording very open-ended, with terms such as “for example” and “etc.” The athletes and their agents took exception to this open-endedness, as they thought that USA-Swimming would be using their name and image rights to sign lucrative commercial sponsorship deals, thus limiting the swimmers’ individual marketing opportunities.
At some point, discussions became very emotional, as the athletes were counting on this APP for their livelihoods. Swimmers like Clary and Dagny Knutson gave up scholarship money with the anticipation of being able to make a living as a pro swimmer. Mark Gangloff just had a child and is now trying to support a family. It is an emotional issue, and as so often happens with such things, everyone effectively plugged their ears and refused to listen to the other side.
Clary expressed these concerns during a House of Delegates meeting, where he and Jessica Hardy, along with Mark Schubert, gave emotional appeals to those present. The following day, however, in a more private meeting, Hardy and Clary were able to learn a little more about the agreement. They learned that the vagueness of the contracts wasn’t USA-Swimming trying to become an employer or to be granted full image and name rights to the athletes.
The ultimate issue came down to simple language. Clary said that Hardy indicated she would be willing to sign a contract with more specific commitments in it. He emphasized repeatedly that USA-Swimming made the commitment that their intent was only non-commercial uses of the athletes. Things like meet appearances, golden goggles appearances, public autograph sessions, and other appearances that wouldn’t interfere with their own personal financial opportunities.
Clary did also bring up the fact that he and his National Team teammates were grateful for the $3,000 raise that they were able to get from USA-Swimming directly, rather than through USOC funding.
It now appears that the athletes, USOC, and USA-Swimming are back on track for getting a deal done sooner rather than later that will earn the swimmers a reasonable living wage. Obviously, there is always a lot of legal nit-picking to be done, but if it just comes down to a matter of adding more specificity to what the athletes are commiting to, an agreement can’t be far off.
In one response, I said to Garrett that I’d like to see all interested parties sit in a room together and lay out their issues, because it didn’t appear that this had happened yet. It turns out that was exactly the solution that may have turned the tide.