BOOK REVIEW: In spite of us

Cycling's old guard takes a licking but keeps on ticking


By Les Earnest


Originally published in the January 1989 issue of Cyclops USA.


David Prouty's newly published memoir [1] covering his 1983-1986 tenure as the first Executive Director of the United States Cycling Federation (USCF) naturally makes very interesting reading for those who lived through the incidents it describes. This account of an important transition in U.S. cycling will be regarded by some as controversial or biased. As one who participated in many of the events described, I think that it is pretty accurate and balanced on the whole.


This book contains many insights, much wisdom, few startling revelations, a small amount of foolishness, a modest number of errors, and one surprising misconception that I will discuss further on. In the grand tradition of book reviewers, I will also take this opportunity to grind some axes of my own.


In spite of us is unlikely to become a Book-of-the-month Club selection for a number of reasons.  Former Velo-news publisher Barbara George has shown considerable courage in publishing this material, given that it is unlikely to appeal to broad market -- after all there are only about 50 people in the world who were directly involved in the incidents described and successful novels are seldom based on accounts of bureaucratic struggles.


Advance copies of this book have been provided to editors of most cycling publications in the usual hope that they will publish reviews that will interest the public in buying it.  There is some risk in this strategy, of course – cycling editors may turn out to be more than half the potential market! Nevertheless, I confidently predict that at least 100 copies will be sold and some people will gain useful perspectives as a result.


Prouty's writing style is similar to the persona that he normally presents: thoughtful, subdued, and a bit guarded -- he almost never kicks ass, though he does take soft jabs at most members of the USCF Board of Directors, both individually and collectively, including me. Few of his adversaries are identified by name, but the more knowledgeable readers will have no difficulty in fingering them. His complaints are generally fair.


The primary villains of the book are the “Old Guard,”* a consortium of USCF directors that he does not list by name. This is a group of directors who live in the past and think that the USCF should function as a big bike club with ever-increasing fringe benefits for themselves. While a number of these people have been on the Board for up to 32 years, neither great age nor long tenure are required to join.


* [Some earlier Cyclops USA articles have also referred to this consortium as the “Old Guard.” The label “Cabal” has been used to identify the hard core of this consortium, consisting primarily of directors from New Jersey and New York City. They also have been called the “Worms” based on the observation that many of them crawled out of the “Big Apple,” though that label is arguably prejudicial.]


The book singles out a few people by name for specific offenses and gives them some pretty good jabs. Most of the named offenders also are members of the old guard, not surprisingly. Ernie, Mike, Tracy and Rob receive substantial attention and Mr. Prouty repeatedly gives it to Nancy Martin right on the chin. She deserved it.


While the book touches on some of the conflict-of-interest finagles in which directors frequently indulge themselves, Prouty carefully skips the really crooked deals. He apparently is not looking for trouble, though he may find it anyway. There are few heroes in this book. The author is one, of course, though he kicks himself a few times. His attorney and confidant, Brian Geddes, could do no wrong. President Phil Voxland is often praised and only gently chastised.


It is clear that Voxland’s pragmatic but covert and indirect style meshed nicely with the way Prouty liked to work. Understandably, the book doesn't discuss the fact that their joint style came to be viewed with suspicion and distrust by many of the directors, who believed that that this soft-spoken duo was scheming against them. In some cases, their perception was correct.


Olympic folly


There are a number of accounts in the book of interactions with Pete Siracusa, who was the commissioner of cycling for the 1984 Olympics. Both Prouty and Voxland apparently were awed by Siracusa's power plays. There is a disgusting account on page 7 of how they let Mr. Siracusa coerce them into deliberately screwing up an international race that had been organized by Southland (7-Eleven) Corporation. The only purpose of that gambit was to put down an uppity corporation that had contributed millions of dollars for the construction of the Olympic Velodrome and other venues and thought that they had earned some respect.


What the dynamic duo should have done was to tell Mr. Siracusa to go to Hell, but confrontation wasn't their style. By cooperating, they foolishly acknowledged their own weakness and naivete. Mr. Siracusa later showed his appreciation by refusing to provide them with any tickets to the Olympic cycling events.


Bradley-Weaver affair


There are some inaccuracies in the account of the 1983 suspensions of Andy Weaver and Jeff Bradley for refusing to fulfill their obligations as members of the national team, which was the earliest major flap that Prouty got involved in. Prouty remarks on page 71 that “I was in the ironic position of having to suspend Weaver and Bradley in the first place and then having to help settle the case at least partially in their favor because the USCF wasn't going to provide them with due process when they appealed my suspension.”


In fact, Prouty did not suspend them because he didn't have the authority to do that. Acting in my capacity as Chairman, Board of Control, I suspended them after investigating Prouty’s allegations and their defenses. I then gave Prouty the responsibility of convincing the appeals jury of the correctness of the suspension. That didn't work out very well because Prouty didn't seem to understand how the appeals process was supposed to work. On page 56, he says “I agreed to undertake a complete review of the suspension hearing procedures for the USCF to bring them more in line with the standards of the USOC and the 1978 Amateur Sports Act. The Weaver-Bradley matter had shown how deficient the USCF was in this area, one of guaranteeing due process for athletes.” In fact, the appeals process had already been reviewed by legal counsel and approved as conforming with Federal and USOC legal requirements.


Prouty apparently wanted to make the appeal procedure more like the criminal court proceedings, with which he was familiar from being a former superintendent of a correctional facility. He did subsequently fulfill his self-imposed obligation by having a new and more complicated appeal procedure drafted by attorney Brian Geddes, at considerable expense to the Federation. It ended up in the trash where it belonged.


Advertising emancipation


Mr. Prouty complains near the bottom of page 71 about inconsistent rule interpretations of successive officers (one of them secretly being me) regarding the permissible size of advertising on rider uniforms. He then says “A year later Phil and I introduced legislation abolishing the rule governing the size of sponsorship exposure on racing jerseys.” In fact, neither he nor Phil had anything to do with that rule change, which became effective in 1985.


Acting out of acute embarrassment at having to enforce the ridiculous rules on advertising, I introduced an abolishment proposal at the infamous Board meeting of May 1984 (Prouty's Chapter 13, “Bloodbath in Chicago”) and persuaded the Board to formally adopt it later that year. I am happy to say that I have never heard anyone suggest that those dimensional rules be brought back. Unfortunately, they still apply in international races.


Dodging a shootout


There are some places where the story is substantially inconsistent within a single page. For example, in discussing the attempted coup of May 1984, Prouty says on page 86 that “I was growing tired of the constant sniping and had geared myself up for the confrontation and whatever might have resulted from it. I didn't like confrontations of this type, but I liked delaying the inevitable even less.” Despite this claim of willingness to confront the issues, he goes on to describe with noticeable pride how he got a New York lawyer to declare that the meeting notice was invalid, so that no business could be conducted and his antagonists were prevented from confronting him. If he wanted to get the confrontation over with, why did he work so hard at preventing it?


He also remarks on page 86 that “I had developed a habit of reading the USCF rule book about once every two months, not because it was fascinating literature but because it was vague and contradictory.” In the next paragraph he says, “When I received copies of the letters written by the five board members demanding a special meeting, I immediately noticed that they were defective under USCF rules. These rules clearly spelled out that such notices for a special meeting had to list the time, location, and purpose of the meeting. The latter was missing in all five letters. Once again they had not done their homework.”


Mr. Prouty seems to have missed a homework assignment himself in failing to detect the inconsistency between these succeeding paragraphs. Why does he claim that the rule book is “vague and contradictory” then immediately describes how things are so “clearly spelled out” that he was able to use the rules to trap his adversaries. It appears that Mr. Prouty was blowing his own horn a bit too hard here to notice that it was out of tune.


Surprising misconception


As it turned out, Mr. Prouty might have benefited from reading the Rule Book more often than once every two months.

While it did contain some ambiguities, as do nearly all laws and regulations, closer study might have enabled him to understand the first paragraph of his job description, which probably would have saved him considerable pain in subsequent confrontations.


In a number of places in the book (e.g. pages 116, 210, 204, 208, and 249-251) and in a recent letter to the editor of

Velo-news [2], Prouty makes it clear that he thought he worked for the Board of Directors and was subject to termination by that body. That was never true, though I have since learned that a number of directors shared this misconception with the Executive Director. From the time that the Executive Director's job description was first defined in 1983 to the present, the first paragraph (Bylaw G, Section 1) has read as follows.


There shall be an Executive Director employed by the Executive Committee, with the advice of the Board of Directors, who shall serve until the Committee accepts a resignation or until removed by the Committee  .  .  .''

This makes it clear that only the Executive Committee can fire the Executive Director. Note that it does not say “with the advice and consent of the Board.” In other words, the Board can kibitz, but the only control that they have over the situation is indirect, given that the Board elects the members of the Executive Committee.


The cited bylaw was not an accident. It was intended to partly insulate the Executive Director from Board politics. It is very hard for anyone to work for more than one entity, especially when they are occasionally at war with one another. Later, a phrase was added at the end of the sentence cited above: “without prejudice to his contract rights.” This was to make it clear that the Executive Director could not be fired before the end of his contract period without compensation. The old guard members of the Executive Committee (who eventually forced Prouty out) behaved as if they did not understand this contractual obligation, though Prouty was aware of it. This was typical of their dimwitted, blunderbuss approach to administration. The strange thing about the political maneuvering discussed in the book is that both Prouty and the Board apparently thought that the Board could decide whether he would go or stay. Nobody bothered to read the bylaws!


It would be fair to remind directors who look down their noses at riders and self-righteously say “I can tell that you haven't read your rule book” that they have been known to make that mistake themselves. If Prouty had read and understood the cited passage, he could have focused his energies more efficiently and stopped worrying quite so much about trying to mollify directors who were not members of the Executive Committee.


Helmet amnesia


A central theme of the book is Prouty's responsibilities and skill as a crisis manager. For example, he gives himself much of the credit for bringing about the adoption of the ANSI helmet standard in late 1985 and for successfully dealing with the insurance crisis of 1986. He has somehow forgotten that he helped cause that crisis by engineering the defeat of the ANSI helmet standard the year before, when I first proposed it to the Board.


I had been campaigning for the development of stronger helmet standards since 1981, but there was nothing that I could “hang my hat on” until the American National Standards Institute released their Z90.4 helmet standard in March 1984. Prouty and attorney Brian Geddes had initially supported my proposal, based in part on input from an M.D. named Tom Dickson, who frequently helped out at the Trexlertown track, among other things. Unfortunately, Dickson later reversed his position, essentially on the grounds that many of the riders didn't like the safer helmets!


Based on this “expert” advice, Prouty and Geddes then reversed themselves and decided to oppose adoption of the ANSI standard. Concurrent with all this, Dickson was participating in the Olympic blood boosting fiasco that would later emerge as another crisis. President Voxland was also strongly opposed to adopting the new helmet standard. He argued that race officials are incapable of enforcing such a standard and he felt that adopting it would increase the Federation's liability. He couldn't have been more wrong.


At the Executive Committee meeting just preceding the October 1984 legislative meeting of the Board, I made a last ditch attempt to talk Prouty, Geddes, and Voxland into supporting the ANSI helmet standard and offered to modify the wording to deal with their concerns. They refused to budge. Like any good bureaucrat, Prouty explained that he was not necessarily opposed to the helmet standard, but thought that “We should study it some more.” My final argument was that while they were studying, many more riders would be seriously injured. My parting shot that “Their blood will be on your hands” was met with uncomfortable stares.


Given the opposition of the leadership, my proposal was doomed -- it went down by a margin of 21 to 3, as I recall. Phil Voxland's proposal passed overwhelmingly. It removed all helmet technical requirements but added a disclaimer to the effect that “The Federation makes no warranties or representations regarding the protective adequacy or fitness for competition of any helmets  .  .  .” Voxland and Prouty told the Board that instead of imposing helmet requirements, we should focus on encouraging riders to educate themselves about the choices.


Voxland's theory was that by disclaiming responsibility for helmet selection, the Federation could avoid responsibility for people who injure themselves as a result of wearing an inadequate helmet. This overlooked the observable fact that nearly everyone who seriously injures themselves sues everyone who was even remotely involved with the incident and usually collects from whoever has deep pockets. The only realistic way to reduce liability would be to reduce the frequency of serious accidents.


As usual, many people were seriously maimed as a result of wearing inadequate helmets during the following year. As usual, many of them received substantial medical payments from the Federation's insurer and some sued the Federation for damages even though it had nothing to do with their helmet selection. Prouty's book somehow fails to mention the defeat of the ANSI helmet standard in 1984 and, even after seeing the bloody and expensive results of the Voxland amendment, he now praises that disastrous measure (bottom of page 195). Strange stuff.


Immediately after the defeat of my helmet proposal, I increased my efforts to get the ANSI standard adopted. I compiled the available evidence and wrote a report refuting all of the counter-arguments that I had heard [3]. Meanwhile, my strong advocacy provoked my own bike club to threaten me with a law suit because I had encouraged the local county government to require that ANSI standard helmets be worn in the Santa Clara County Velodrome.


I told the club what to do with their threats. They backed off until I ran for re-election to the USCF Board a short time later, when they engineered my defeat. My final act as Chairman Board of Control was to distribute my report to the new Board, with the hope that they would finally understand the issues. Happily, they did. As recounted in Prouty's book on page 196, this time the Board voted 21 to 4 in favor of the strong helmet rule.


My departure from the Board and the Executive Committee helped tip the balance of power into the hands of the old guard. As soon as I learned the outcome of the new officers’ election, I knew that Prouty was doomed. I was subsequently surprised that he was able to hang on for a number of months.


Unfortunately the wording of the new helmet rule that was adopted (written by attorney Geddes) was atrocious -- it imposed a helmet labeling requirement that was literally impossible to meet and unfairly required those who had already purchased helmets that met the standard to discard them and buy new ones. That mess did not get cleaned up until I got back on the Board two years later.


In my view, the 1984 decision by the Board to reject the ANSI helmet standard was the single largest and most costly blunder of the Voxland-Prouty administration. Somehow that incident isn't mentioned in the book. There is considerably more to be said about this battle, including manufacturer's skullduggery, conflicts-of-interest among Board members, and later flip-flops by Richard DeGarmo and others who tried to reverse the adoption of the helmet standard after they had helped pass it. A more complete account of this struggle will appear later [4].


Final Recommendations


In the Epilogue, on page 277, Prouty recommends that the U.S. Congress make a number of changes in the Amateur Sports Act of 1978, under which the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) and National Governing Bodies (NGBs) such as the USCF operate. I strongly support the proposal to reform political representation in the NGBs so as to give one vote to each licensee in director elections. I also agree with Prouty that it would be a good idea for the USOC to have substantial auditing and investigative authority with respect to NGBs.


I worry about his proposal to greatly increase the direct control of the USOC over the NGBs, given that the USOC is controlled by its own “Old Guard” that is at least as reactionary and self-serving as the one that continues to strangle the USCF. If the USOC political system were actually reformed along the lines that Prouty suggests, or if some other way could be found to keep them honest, then building a more monolithic sports power structure would be attractive. It would be a mistake to grant hierarchical control before the USOC has been demonstrably reformed, however.




There are other nits that can be picked, such as the remark on page 219 that the world championships were “an event the U.S. had never before hosted.” If Prouty had ventured into the appendices of the USCF Rule Book he would have discovered that the U.S. hosted the world championships a number of times around the turn of the century. The last ones before 1986 were in Newark, New Jersey in 1912.


While most of the remarks above represent criticisms of the book of one sort or another, I wish to affirm that its contents are largely accurate, informative and rather entertaining, at least to someone who cares. I hope that current and future sports mentors will read and learn from it and will act to bring about the primary reforms that Prouty advocates.


Dave Prouty should be lauded for doing an excellent job under very trying circumstances. He deserved much better treatment than he received. We are further indebted to him for going to the trouble of documenting his insights and observations so that at least some of the mistakes need not be repeated.




[1] David Prouty, In spite of us, Velo-news, Brattleboro, VT, 1988.


[2] David Prouty, “Prouty explains,” p. 19, Velo-news, Jan. 13, 1989.


[3] Les Earnest, “Helmet safety issues,” report to USCF Board of Directors, 1985 July 28.


[4] Les Earnest, “The Brain Bucket Bash,” Cyclops USA, September 1989


Cyclops USA Home Page