The Staten Island Runner

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September 16, 2000 

NYRROArs   by Glenn Ribotsky

An ongoing commentary on issues in the Staten Island and metropolitan road racing community, complied through the auspices of the New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation.


To most casual observers—both runners and non-runners—it probably seems that because the New York Road Runners Club (NYRRC) is the world’s largest running organization, and produces not only the hugely famous New York City Marathon, but also so many other yardstick events (the number of total people who participate in the Club’s events yearly dwarfs that of any other running club on the planet), it must be an organization on the cutting-edge of its field, and of consummate professionalism in the way it handles its events, its sponsors, and its clientele.

Those that are a little closer to the action, though—long-time activist members, Club Council representatives (The Club Council is made up of representatives from local area running teams and is supposed to give direct member input regarding race format), even some members of the Club’s Board of Directors—know better. It has been charged (both in this author’s pieces and those of other writers) that at the upper administrative levels, the Club’s handles its affairs—from attracting sponsorship to administering events to hiring/promoting/firing its personnel--in a secretive, nepotistic, and haphazard manner, with little input from or concern for its members or even its own Board. It frequently also gives the impression that it is disinterested in public relations, particularly with its members, treating them in a distracted and clumsy fashion.

Those who have not had the chance to experience this need look no further than the Club’s annual membership meeting, held last Monday, September 11th. These meetings have been a part of the Club’s charter since it organized as a non-profit corporation in the State of New York, and they are (theoretically) open to all members in good standing. Until the 90’s, though, about fourteen people who were not Directors or employees of the Club would show up; there seemingly was little to be discussed at such meetings that had not already been broached to Club President Fred Lebow or the club staff by whichever member had a complaint or concern. (Fred’s constant presence at NYRRC events, as well as his habit of wandering the rooms of the Club’s offices and the Central Park running paths just outside, made it fairly easy to approach him, and while he often thought your point-of-view had little merit, he would expound on why he thought that way, often at great length.)

When Allan Steinfeld succeeded Fred upon the latter’s death in 1995, though, members suddenly found that their questions were being answered more slowly, their concerns being addressed far less readily, and Club policy and practice becoming far more secretive. Not surprisingly, attendance at Club Council meetings expanded to the point that the meetings could no longer be held in the Club itself—they were moved to a nearby elementary school—and the annual meeting suddenly began to draw a larger and louder audience; it too was moved to a local school with a relatively spacious auditorium. The first year that the meeting was moved to the auditorium, the number and volume of the attendees seemed to surprise and worry the club sufficiently that in the following year, in addition to the Club’s officers being present, they brought their attorney of record (from the firm of Paul Weiss Rifkin,) to sit on the stage as well.

This year’s meeting was pretty much like those of the past few years—after the standard introduction, there was the announcement of the annual vote tallies in the “elections” for vacant seats on the Board. (This year, there were only five candidates for the five vacant spots, so all who made it on to the ballot were assured of election; the allowance on the ballot of only those who pass a selection committee composed of present Board members, rather than through some more open system, has long been a sore point with activist members and has been criticized at length in this column previously.) Following afterwards were various statements of status and activities from the Club’s officers, and a somewhat contentious but ultimately all-too-short question and answer period. Issues brought up this year included the aforementioned way of nominating candidates for vacant Board positions, access to the Club’s financial records as required under the New York State non-profit corporation law (a cursory financial report was given for the first time at this year’s meeting, but it contained little specifics such as expenditures for salaries, advertising, etc.; those who were interested in more detail were told to contact the Club’s attorney), and the ongoing difficulties in obtaining sponsorship. As usual, those at the dais did their best to keep the discussion as short and non-revelatory as possible.

It probably would be naïve to think that those in charge of the meeting would have an interest in allowing anyone present who was not a Club official to influence the agenda, or that the Club would have any interest in making it easy to access any information that might be used to ask potentially embarrassing questions. (The Club makes it difficult to even gain a copy of its by-laws for how such meetings are to be conducted—it won’t send them to members, they have to ask specifically and then come get them at the Club--let alone documents like financial statements.) An organization that has a near-monopoly in its field—NYRRC puts on nearly all of the high profile running events in the City of New York with the blessing of the city’s and state’s political leaders--has little incentive to change. Nevertheless, as an organization that ostensibly supposed to provide services to the running community, particularly its members, it is still more than passing strange why the Club is so clumsy in its public and member relations, not even giving it much lip-service anymore (when was the last time you heard “a race and a place for every pace”?). It doesn’t even seem to be aware how obvious its dissembling in certain situations appears, and how that looks far more suspicious than stating the obvious—the announcement that marketing vice-president Scott Lange some months back was “leaving” brought great derision from active members, who applied the inexorable logic about what would happen to someone in that post who had lost, and could not obtain alternative, sponsorship for the women’s Mini-Marathon and the Fifth Avenue Mile probably the Club’s two most well-known events after the New York City Marathon.  In other words, in so much of what the Club does, it comes off not so much as malicious, but arrogantly dumb.

Ultimately, the Club seems to be having a problem, as the George Bushes did and do, with “the vision thing”. Under Fred Lebow, and probably due primarily to his future-oriented, entrepreneurial spirit, it seemed to have a definite direction, a set of goals, and at least some framework of a plan on how to accomplish them. The current administration does not seem anywhere near as organized or visionary. It is hard to determine what the goals currently are, except to attract as many runners to weekly races and make as much entry fee money as possible. (It does make a big point of its commitment to its recently-developed Foundation initiatives for younger runners, specifically those from less affluent backgrounds, and its new ”sub-20” website for teen runners, but the self-promotion surrounding these this often sounds like the attempt of an organization with public-relations problems to garner a few brownie points—or to develop the next generation of dues- and entry-fee paying members.) While many of its events continue to increase in number of entries, there have been signs that this may not be a long-term trend—a year-by-year comparison seems to indicate that weather is the biggest factor in how many starters a race will draw, and not novel promotions or race formats; the Club has had few interesting ideas in this regard in the post-Fred era. (Many of the races have been shortened, supposedly to appeal to the aging running population, but a lot of them come out indistinguishable from each other, and many runners see little point in going to the same basic 5-kilometer/5-miler every other weekend all year.) The Club also seems to conveniently forget that it’s original founding mission was to advance the cause of inclusiveness and competition in the sport. (It’s recent indifference to the attempts of wheelchair racers to gain equal treatment in the NYC marathon, which led to a lawsuit that finally got the administration’s to take some action, was a sorry and laughable episode.) It seems more concerned with marketing its logo-bearing (and rather steeply priced) merchandise than with putting on interesting and competitive races; the Club now more resembles a shopping mall that uses running as a theme than an organization that dedicated to competitive events that showcase both the serious and not-so-serious athlete.

The upper echelons of the Club appear to often work at cross purposes (when they are working towards recognizable purposes at all); there seem to be enough people on enough different pages that many, even on the Board, are packing it in and pursuing projects elsewhere (a number of current Board members declined to seek re-election—one of them, Dick Traum, head of the Achilles Track Club for athletes with disabilities, has gotten so disgusted with the NYRRC’s lukewarm support of his athletes and cause—see wheelchair athletes, above--that he has announced he will be organizing his own marathon in Prospect Park next spring, for both able-bodied and non-able-bodied runners).

There has been much speculation (a good deal of it from this quarter) that current NYRRC Vice-President of Operations Mary Wittenberg was originally hired by the Club, and eventually given this newly-created title, to groom her to replace current President Steinfeld somewhere down the line (Steinfeld has not been in the best of health and has admitted he finds the public relations nature of the position more difficult than the more technical responsibility he held under Lebow). Perhaps the line should be shortened if Ms. Wittenberg has a more articulated vision of her own for the Club’s future. (She is really somewhat of an unknown quantity—with a legal background she has a flair for obfuscation in answer to direct questioning, but in contrast to Mr. Steinfeld and most other Club officers/administrators does promptly returns calls and e-mails, and is seen and approachable at many more of the clubs events.) One thing is for certain, though, whether or not Ms.Wittenberg takes over the reins sooner, later, or not at all—the Club’s apparent lack of direction, and its current reputation for oafishness, is hurting it with potential sponsors, with potential employee and Board talent, and most of all, with its longer-term members. It is not putting too fine a point on things to say that if these critical groups cannot be counted on to provide as much commitment as in past years, the Club may find itself eclipsed as the premier road racing organization in the world. (It’s certainly being challenged in this regard by the Boston Athletic Association and the Atlanta Track Club, among others.) And these groups are likely to get even grumpier and more recalcitrant if the Club does not show a renewed commitment to purpose and a clear communication of it to those whose talents, and dollars, it needs to attract.

(What about it, Mary?)

Glenn Ribotsky
Chair, New York Road Race OmbudsAssociation
84 Vogel Loop
Staten Island, NY 10314