So Pro?

By Mario Fraioli

Full transparency: Oiselle sponsored this newsletter in February. Just being open about that from the get-go—and to be clear that past (or present) sponsorship has no bearing on what I decide to write about in any edition of the morning shakeout.

This Tweet on Monday from Oiselle founder and CEO Sally Bergesen caught my eye and made me do a double-take. “Proud to sponsor pro athlete @KellyKKRoberts!” Bergesen wrote. “#sportsbrasquad helping a lot of women find their confidence.” Wait, what? Who?

Now before I go any further, I fully realize that sparking this topic has the potential to start a metaphorical forest fire in the tangled web of trees known as the internet. That’s not my intention here, nor is it to bash Kelly Roberts—someone I haven’t met, spoken to or interacted with professionally, socially or otherwise. My goal is to present a few facts about Roberts’ situation and (hopefully) start a productive conversation around the question: How do you define a professional athlete?

I spoke to Bergesen late last night and got her take. “I’ve kind of been evolving my thinking on this,” she said in response to my question. “Just because we did it a certain way [in the past] doesn’t mean we’re not changing and evolving what these definitions mean [for Oiselle] going forward. Kelly kind of broke the mold in a way—she calls herself a storyteller and uses sports as a platform to connect with others through her blog and social media to spread a message. From a brand perspective, it’s long been known that brands are looking for more than fast times [when sponsoring an athlete]. Ideally, they have athletic talent but also talent at telling a story, communicating with people and wanting to share experiences involving all of those things. It’s tricky for many smaller brands: as much as we want to support results-only athletes, that’s not feasible for us. In my mind, a professional athlete is someone who is making a living in the sport and that’s very much what Kelly is doing. I’d like to see more of that—athletes whose professional purpose is not so much “results-only” but also helps people see their own bodies in a positive way. That’s such an important topic for women. And to be clear, that doesn’t mean we’re moving away from sponsoring elite professional athletes—we’re expanding the range of women we support.”

I’ll admit that I hadn’t heard of Roberts, the “pro athlete” (which, to be fair, are Bergesen’s words, not her own), prior to yesterday, so I felt compelled to do a little research. I was aware of her popular blog and podcast, “Run, Selfie, Repeat,” and I knew she’d been featured recently in Competitor and by Outside. I also saw that she’s appearing on the cover of Women’s Running magazine’s upcoming July issue. But I knew nothing of Roberts’ athletic accomplishments or that they were significant enough to land her a professional contract. Roberts is listed on Oiselle’s team webpage under “muses”—“a group of women who inspire us with their fire, their character, and their dedication to creating positive change in the world”—a definition she appears to fit quite well. It should be noted that “muses” are a separate classification from the “professional team” or “Haute Volée,” the two categories of “elite” and “emerging elite” women “competing at the highest level of our sport.” But just because Roberts isn’t an elite doesn’t mean she doesn’t get paid. Just the opposite, in fact. Bergesen told me that Oiselle does indeed sponsor Roberts financially, but made it clear that her contract is handled on an individual basis and not funded by any part of the $100 annual membership fee forked over by members of the Volée team ($25 of which goes to help support the Haute Volée, i.e. the “emerging elite” team). Roberts is on the same level as Kara Goucher, Lauren Fleshman, Devon Yanko, Britney Henry and Steph Bruce in that regard, even though she doesn’t compete anywhere near the same level as they do.

Roberts is clearly an influential person in the women’s running space and brings value to Oiselle’s brand by way of the message she spreads through her writing, podcasting and social media presence. That value, Bergesen says, is worth a full-time salary. But does it define a professional athlete?

It depends on who you ask, of course. At the end of the day, a lot of it comes down to labeling and semantics. I’ve given this a lot of thought (it’s after 3 AM as I wrestle with these words) and I say no. Contrary to Bergesen’s definition of professional athlete, I don’t believe Roberts is making her living as an athlete in the sport—rather, she’s making her living as a professional blogger and influential personality who is spreading a message around women’s body awareness issues using running as a platform. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, of course, but there’s also a major difference: the sport, by its very definition, is competitive in nature (and there’s nothing wrong with that, either).

To me, a professional anyone—athlete, writer, doctor, lawyer, coach, you name it—is someone whose livelihood is supported and sustained by the activities of their chosen profession. I also believe that being a professional in any field carries with it an understanding that the person in question got to that point through training and experience, and performs their job in a manner that reflects that background. In Roberts’ case, she’s doing all of that as a professional storyteller and influencer—not as an athlete. “I think outside of the box and create shareable content and activations that don’t just entertain, but engage, motivate, and inspires my kick ass audience,” she says on her own website. “I have a unique voice in the health and fitness world because I find the funnier and authentic elements of running, working out and life in general.”

The “professional” label gets thrown around carelessly in many arenas, particularly in sports, and often gets confused with “elite” or “sponsored.” These words are not synonymous. For example, in triathlon, the top athletes are often referred to as the “pro” field. But the reality is that many of those competing under the “professional” classification don’t make much money (if any at all) from sponsorship or race winnings; in fact, many of them are in debt or are supporting themselves in some other way. The same is true for many runners. That doesn’t strike me as professional. These athletes might deserve to compete amongst and against other elites (I have no problem with using this word, although I agree its definition is also subjective), and many of them may have various forms of sponsorship, but are they all professional? Again, I say no. Of course there can be overlap between the three labels, but most athletes fall into one or two separate buckets—e.g., elite and sponsored but not professional, or elite and neither sponsored nor professional—but rarely all three. There are very few people in running supporting their livelihood as professional athletes.

For example, I coach a number of elite-level runners. Many of them are also sponsored by a brand (in some cases, two or more) and receive free or discounted product. Some of those athletes are also financially compensated in various ways. I’d classify almost all of these folks as semi-professional athletes (again, the whole labeling and semantics thing) who primarily support themselves through another profession—teaching, law and physical therapy to name a few—and not by way of sponsorship money and/or race winnings. Make of that what you will.

I don’t know where I’m going with this but I think it makes for an interesting discussion. So I’ll throw it out there to you: How do you define professional athlete? Let’s have a productive, respectful dialogue about it. Write me back if you’re so inclined—I’ll eventually reply—or start a broader conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #myprodef

+ In my research I came across some Twitter chatter that led me to few posts—all of them published yesterday—concerning Kelly Roberts and her apparent propensity for banditing races. It’s not a topic I’ve spent a lot of time looking into—nor do I care to—but I’d be remiss not to share those links here. Here’s Derek Murphy of marathoninvestigation.com‘s report, “Bandit Selfie Repeat—Popular Blogger Continues To Ignore The Rules,” this blog post, “When You #SpeakOut Against a Cheater” from former Oiselle Volée Aysha Mirza, and finally, a short apologetic entry from Roberts herself, “I Made A Mistake.”

A version of this post first appeared in the morning shakeout, my weekly email newsletter covering running, writing, media and other topics that interest me. If you’d like for it to land in your inbox first thing on Tuesday mornings, subscribe here.