The big news around the trackosphere this weekend wasn’t the Houston Marathon, Rupp’s season opener or any number of college meets. As per usual, the track media and Twitter swamped us with their breathless metaphors and endless historical comparisons for Mary Cain’s 3000m HS record. I’ve written before about our media’s misplaced priorities in covering the different levels of the sport, and this weekend seemed to be Exhibit 87 in the case of Track Media vs. Professional Athletes. Somewhere around the time that I saw someone comparing Cain’s race to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, I asked myself my usual question: “How would this go down in another sport?”
I wasn’t that interested in figuring out what Cain’s 3K time equates to in terms of a high schooler’s single-game rushing record, number of 3-points made in a season or any other useless comparison. She’s dominated every race at every level she’s competed at. She has broken numerous American records for her age. Alberto Salazar called her parents to get permission to coach her. With a resume like hers and the attention she’s received from the highest levels of the sport, if she competed in any sport other than track, people would be wondering if she was going to forego college to turn pro right straight out of high school.
So why doesn’t she? She could still attend University of Oregon while training with Alberto and competing professionally around the world. Think about it:
– Cain has outright decimated the other girls at junior meets around the country. In college, they will be her teammates and competitors. Will they be sufficient to maximize her training and racing potential, or will she be sneaking off to go run with Alberto’s elite females?
– As a runner in Alberto’s stable, she would be one of the 3 or 4 American track athletes with any leverage to negotiate a contract with Nike. Plus, again thanks to Alberto, she’ll have that rarest of all commodities in track & field: job security. She could likely make more as a freshman than many athletes who will be at World Championships this year; and after the shoe companies’ post-Olympic purge (conversations that start with “Nice medal, but what have you done for me lately?”), it’s never too early for Nike to start planning a marketing campaign around the pre-ordained starlet of Rio.
– It would be a great test case for the sport’s ability to conduct and present itself as a professional sport. Are the Track & Field Athletes’ Association, the USATF, and the sport’s agents, administrators and marketers ready to handle someone who discards the traditional amateur development paradigm and instead runs straight for the money? Could they adequately promote and protect her, making her into a star and a marketable personality, as befitting a once-in-a-generation athlete?
Like so much else on the road to professionalizing track and field, this is a long shot to say the least. But the inadequacy of the collegiate system to produce world-class American athletes is pretty well established, and we are in a time of general upheaval and change in professional track and field where disruptions are welcome and innovation pays off. If Cain went pro, maybe she’d even get some of the attention track athletes deserve from the mainstream sports media. At the very least, by being a professional, she would at least be closer to deserving the attention she’s already receiving from the track media.