The name Trevor Graham strikes a cord with most fans of the sport of track and field. Earlier in the decade it was synonymous with championship winning sprinters like Marion Jones, Justin Gatlin, Shawn Crawford.
Then it became synonymous with "The Syringe", as he became the man that started the BALCO whirlwind by turning in the syringe that contained THG - providing USADA with the blueprint to the undetectable designer drug that lead to the suspensions of several elite athletes, including Dwain Chambers, Kelli White, Regina Jacobs, and some of his own athletes, including Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones.
Most recently, however, Graham has been forced to serve his own banishment from the sport as he was convicted of one count of lying to federal investigators during the BALCO investigation. This resulted in various problems with the USOC, USATF, and USADA. All based on athletes he has coached having failed drug tests.
So imagine my excitement as a fan of the sport, when Graham contacted me to discuss an issue he saw mentioned on my blog! Publically quiet for the past few years, I found Graham open and candid regarding various areas of the sport when I talked to him via telephone from his home in North Carolina. He agreed to the interview with the caveat that our conversation be based on how he feels the sport can be improved. So to that end we spent most of the conversation discussing his ideas for a professional track and field league in the United States.
Cway - Mr. Graham thank you for letting me interview you. I know there are lots of people that are interested in what's going on with you since you have been very quiet since BALCO and the trial. So what's been going on with you.
Graham - I haven't been doing much. As everyone knows I have a year of house confinement so there's not a whole lot I can do. Spend time with my family and try to keep up with what's going on with the sport. Looking for ways that I can contribute.
Cway - Looking for ways that you can contribute?
Graham - Yes. Even when I was coaching, I was looking for new goals. I had athletes that set records, and won medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships. But the way the sport is structured there wasn't anywhere else to go. So I was looking at ways the sport could be expanded or made better. How to get more athletes involved, more coaches involved, create new goals. I came to the conclusion that as a coach the one thing I couldn't do was take my team and win a National Championship like Phil Jackson, or Tony Dungy or Mike Krzyzewski. So I've been working on plans for the last six or seven years on how to do a track league in the United States.
Cway - Which is why you agreed to talk to me, to talk about your ideas for a track and field league in the United States. But you're no longer coaching, and your old group, SprintCap, doesn't exist any more. And, pardon me for saying this, but many people have a very negative opinion of you at the moment. So do you think that people will be willing to listen to your ideas on how to improve the sport?
Graham - There has been a lot of negativity out there about me - I know that. But in spite of what people may think or think they know about me, I still love the sport and want to see it grow. I've always been a fan of the sport and I still read about what's going on with the sport all the time. A couple weeks ago I was reading your blog and I saw the letter from an athlete talking about the difficulties he is having and decided it was time for me to speak up and present my ideas.
The sport has turned its back on me, but that doesn't mean that I have to do the same. I was once one the top coaches in the world and I still feel like I can contribute. My son competed and was one of the top sprinters in the country in high school. I have a daughter still competing. I still have a lot of people in the sport that are my friends. I'm outside looking in but if I have an idea that I think can help the sport then I want to get that out there. Now whether the sport will accept it or not is a different story. People have to get over what they’ve seen and heard the last couple of years and if it is a good idea then they should not prosecute the message because of the messenger.
Cway - Then tell me about your league plans. That's been a topic on the table lately. USATF CEO Doug Logan recently mentioned the idea of a league on his blog. UK Athletics has talked about trying something along those lines later this year. It's something I've even given some thought to.
Graham - I have a full plan that I intend to send to Track and Field News and also Mr. Logan. But the general idea is to create an eight team National Track and Field League (NTFL) to start with, that could be expanded to sixteen teams. There would be a Western Region and an Eastern Region with teams in Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Georgia, Oregon, New York, and two teams in California. There would be a regular season, regional championships and an annual National championship. It's set up to run during the Spring before USATF's Nationals and before the European season, so it would be a supplement to what currently exists.
It would function like other leagues with full teams that have owners, general managers, coaches, and athletes. Each team would have its own name, mascot, colors, logo and uniforms. There would be an NTFL Commissioner to oversee the league just like David Stern (NBA) or Roger Goodell (NFL). My plan includes a Conduct Policy as well as a Doping Policy.
Cway - Why do you think that a "league" is necessary? We have track meets going on all the time from March to September without a league and track has functioned that way for well over a hundred years. Why the change?
Graham - The NTFL is necessary because the sport has grown so large that is beyond what it was even 10 years ago. The sport has been in a soup bowl but has expanded beyond that. Ten years ago you couldn't find athletes making the kind of money that they are making today. The athletes are getting bigger, the sport is getting bigger but the current structure is keeping it small. The league is to try and help the expansion of the sport - to try to take it somewhere new. The sport has been the same way for decades without any expansion out of the framework you mentioned. It's time now to take the sport to a real professional level.
The athletes consider themselves professionals but are running in the same old amateur mold. The league would be set up to actually treat them as professional athletes. There have been so many groups - Santa Monica, HSI, Sprint Capitol -that called themselves a team and tried to function as a team, but the sport is set up for individuals and not teams. Now if you take these elite coaches and surround them with a general manager, athletes, give them a name, an owner, assistants, etc now the coach can call himself a coach and feel like a part of a team.
Cway - So why do you think your plan will work? Why will coaches coaching teams and athletes running for teams make the sport better?
Graham - Because the concept is to make the sport more fan friendly. Give people the sport the way they are used to watching sports - give them teams. Right now track and field fans have to be fans of individuals, but most people have grown up following teams. Hard to ask people to change their habits, especially when it involves how they spend their money.
People get crazy when it comes to their teams. Celtics fans bleed green. A whole arena will dress in Carolina Blue when the Tar Heels play. The Cowboys were even called America's Team! So we can give the people what they want - teams. But instead of Kobe and Lebron, or Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, we can give them X-Man and Tyson Gay, Jeremy Wariner and Lashawn Merritt. It would make the sport more fan friendly and more marketable. I can see Nike and Adidas selling athletes' jerseys, team jackets, and other NTFL items. That brings more money into their pockets and to the sport - and that will help the sport grow.
Cway - Do you think the sport is ready for something like this? Like you said, track has been doing things a certain way for a very long time. The last time I remember something like this being attempted was in the '70's and it didn't last very long.
Graham - I'm not going to say it will be easy. There will be a lot of challenges. We have to go out and find owners, and a commissioner that understands our sport that can come in and be a voice from the standpoint of all the different aspects of the sport - athletes, coaches, agents, etc. Once that person has been selected we'll be headed in the right direction.
Then the NTFL will have to go out and find sponsors so we can get the sport televised more regularly and create more publicity. But the league will be fan friendly and a format that sponsors are used to which should make it easier than it is now. If we can get someone like Phil Knight, who is a fan of the sport, to own a team in his region and put together the kind of team that he would like to see that would make attracting sponsorship even easier. An owner like Knight, who is savvy about our sport would be able to hire a coach and surround him with the resources needed to build a championship squad. The kind of team that would get the league going off in the right direction with a bang.
Cway - You mentioned Phil Knight of Nike and how you might be able to get his buy in on something like this. How about the coaches and athletes, how do you it benefiting them?
Graham - Right now most coaches are affiliated with a university. When I started Sprint Capitol I was the only coach at the time that had no university affiliation. The NTFL would free up coaches from having to have that affiliation to survive. With a league all of the coaches will be on salary just like any other professional sport. And they would have and owner and a general manager that would be responsible for their training needs - so the coach can focus on coaching. The league would also take our elite coaches and surround them with more athletes as well as assistant coaches. It would give a lot of young coaches an opportunity to be tutored by some of the great coaches out there like John Smith, Bobby Kersee, Clyde Hart, Brooks Johnson and others. And it will help us better prepare our athletes for the Olympics and World Championships and other international competitions, because more athletes will get exposed to the best coaches we have to offer. We wouldn't be asking Allyson Felix to leave Bobby Kersee, but rather take a Bobby Kersee and surround him with more athletes that can gain from his knowledge.
And it would be a big win for the athletes. The NTFL would get more athletes paid from top to bottom - just like football or basketball - because athletes would be signed to contracts. Shoe contracts wouldn't be the only stable revenue stream. They would also have their own association where their voice can be heard. Right now there really is no voice for the athletes. So this would be the first opportunity for the athletes to actually have a voice in the sport. Eventually the league would be able to create retirement packages and insurance so that it becomes more of a real job instead of a hobby that pays the athlete money.
It would also create ways for retired athletes to stay involved in the sport. Other professional sports bring guys back as coaches, general managers, and other positions. The NTFL could do the same. I can see former athletes like Carl Lewis, Mo Greene, Evelyn Ashford, Jackie Joyner Kersee and Michael Johnson being brought in as General Managers to help run these teams. It would provide more work for announcers like Dwight Stones and Ato Boldon and possibly open up new opportunities for others that might be interested in getting into new areas of the sport.
Cway - So you've given thought to this being more than just putting together some teams to compete against each other?
Graham - Like I said, I've been thinking about this for at least six years, and I've looked at how everyone in the sport can capitalize. If we have teams that's more jobs for the athletes. More athletes with contracts means more work for the agents. The expansion to teams creates more selling opportunities for the shoe companies. And a more fan friendly sport means more TV and more money - and that gets passed along to everybody.
And if we have our best coaches, athletes, and former athletes working together through the league there will be a guaranteed benefit to our National/International teams! If the goal is to improve our results in the Olympics and World Championships can you imagine a crew of our best sprinters, for example, working together with our best coaches? Not to mention the up and coming athletes that get to work with these athletes AND coaches! It would create an ongoing development program.
That would then free up USATF to put other resources into the grass roots programs with the kids and their families. So yeah, I want everyone possible to benefit.
Cway - Well, I'm looking forward to seeing your plan and getting a chance to see how it compares to some of the ideas that have already been bandied about. And while I know you didn't want to spend a lot of time talking about your situation with the sport, I would like to talk to you about that if we get to chat again.
Graham - Sure. I've been quiet for a while, and listened to people say a lot of things about me - many of them not true. Right now I want to let people know that Trevor Graham is someone that really wants to help the sport, and I think this is a way that I can contribute. Thank you for letting me do that. So I do think we can talk again and I will tell you my thoughts about some other areas of the sport
Cway - Good. I know there are a lot of people that would like to hear what you have to say. Thank you for your time and I hope to talk again real soon.