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Both Sides Of The USA Triathlon Ballot Controversy

An attempt from USA Triathlon’s Board of Directors to gain further power, or an introduction of necessary updates to an antiquated system?

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An attempt from USA Triathlon’s Board of Directors to gain further power, or an introduction of necessary updates to an antiquated system? We break down both sides of the hotly debated USAT ballot.

If you’re one of USA Triathlon’s 115,000 annual members, you received an email ballot last week that included proposed changes to USAT bylaws. What you may not be aware of is that the changes have drawn strong criticism from a number of elite athletes. While USAT holds elections every two years, this is a special ballot specific to these proposed changes. Most notably opposing the changes is the Athletes Advisory Council (AAC), a group of six elite athletes—Gwen Jorgensen, Erin Jones, Joel Rosinbum, Steven Sexton, John O’Neil and Ben Collins—elected by their fellow professionals to protect the interest of elites when it comes to USAT policy.

The AAC released a statement last week detailing why they are encouraging USAT members to vote against the changes put forth by the Board of Directors. Their reasoning is three-fold: First, they feel the changes will limit the ability of members to run for positions on the board. Second, if the changes pass, the number of regional representatives will be reduced from eight to six. Lastly, and of greatest concern to the elites, is that certain professional athletes will be precluded from running for a general director position on the USAT Board.

Limiting Ability of Members to Run for Positions

The current bylaws allow any USAT member who collects 50 signatures to run for a position on the board. Once a member receives the required signatures, he or she is then placed on the ballot and is elected by the members in his or her region. The proposed changes to the language of the bylaws would mean that a prospective board member would have to be nominated by USAT’s Nominating and Governance Committee (NGC), which is appointed by the USAT Board. According to the AAC statement, this would give the current board much greater control over the future makeup of the board.

USAT, however, claims the changes would allow for proper vetting of candidates to create a “competency-based board,” which was proposed to USAT by United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun (and has apparently been proposed to a number of other national governing bodies). The idea behind a competency-based board is to have people with a diverse set of skills making up the board. So, for example, one person may have a legal background, another might have an understanding of communications and marketing, and another may be skilled when it comes to finance.

Reducing the Number of Regions

The second issue of reducing the number of regions from eight to six may sound benign, but the real concern for the elite athletes is what would happen to the two spots that would open up on the 12-person board. Currently the eight regionally elected board members (or general directors) are elected by the members of his or her region (after receiving 50 signatures to get on the ballot). Under the proposed changes, six general directors would still be elected by region (after being nominated by the NGC), and the remaining two board positions would be “independent directors,” who would be nominated by the NGC and elected by the board. At this time there is only one independent director on the board and that position is chosen by a majority vote of the general and athlete directors.

The real question at hand is whether or not the current regional representatives actually represent their regions. USA Triathlon’s argument is that the present system of electing eight regional representatives was drawn up when triathlon was a much smaller sport and very grassroots. With the growth of the sport and the advent of the Internet and social media, triathlon has become a national (and international) sport. A triathlete from Florida may race in California and train in Colorado alongside athletes from New York. The idea of electing regional representatives to pursue the best interests of the sport may in fact be a bit antiquated, and USAT believes it is.

Limiting Elite Athletes’ Involvement

The changes to the bylaws say in part: “Elites who qualify to run for athlete directors are not eligible to run for any general director position.”

According to elite triathlete and AAC member Ben Collins, “The issue is in the definition of an elite athlete for the purpose of being an athlete director. The way USAT defines eligibility for an athlete director is that an elite must have competed in a project gold level competition in the past 10 years—meaning any ITU World Championship or WTS event.”

For example, Matt Chrabot raced in the ITU Long Distance World Championship this past weekend in Oklahoma City. Even if he retired from professional racing tomorrow to pursue other endeavors, he’d be prevented from running for a general director position in his region until 2026 (and even then he’d have to be nominated by the NGC).

The accusation that elite athletes would be underrepresented on the board doesn’t exactly ring true, says USAT. Currently there are around 400 elite triathletes in the U.S. Approximately half of those would be eligible to run for an athlete director position according to the current guidelines. That means that there are three board positions for a group of 200 potential candidates to become athlete directors. Meanwhile, there are nine board positions for the 115,000 USAT members eligible to be a general director. The math suggests that elites are well represented on USAT’s board. If that 10-year rule weren’t in place, USAT’s board could, in theory, be overwhelmingly composed of past and current pros.

The proposed bylaw changes put forth by USAT’s board are wide-ranging and are worthy of careful consideration by its voting members. The accusation that the recommended changes are an act of “cronyism” on behalf of the current board may be a bit far-fetched. If the changes are passed, a number of the current board members will likely lose their seats on the board. But when a council that includes the reigning Olympic gold medalist expresses its concern over the amendments, it demands mindful scrutiny from everyone with a vote.

USAT members have until Oct.15 to submit their ballots.