An attempt to evaluate the complaints about University of Oregon coach Robert Johnson

Winning isn't everything, but it counts for enough to cause nasty conflicts between people theoretically sharing common goals

This post continues Thursday’s one-way discussion about Alberto Salazar’s treatment of his Nike Oregon Project athletes by morphing into an analysis of a fresh, related controversy.

On Monday, The Oregonian published a story by longtime track reporter Ken Goe describing the high-tech emphasis on weight management within the University of Oregon men’s and women’s track and cross-country programs and detailing how this created pressures that negatively affected some former members of the women’s team. Although necessarily upsetting at points, it’s a thorough, objective, and all-around excellent running-related article published in 2021 in a legitimate newspaper—i.e., it’s a veritable unicorn.

The headline, however, is shit. Goe surely didn’t write it. “Women athletes allege body shaming within Oregon Ducks track and field program” is deeply misleading, as only one incident Goe describes comes close to qualifying as body-shaming. And this slanting, as intentionally inflammatory as it is wrong, had exactly the effect the editor I’m guessing produced it hoped: At least one high-profile runner reacted with an accusatory, wandering Instagram diatribe that—no matter its earnest, if unexamined, motivations—resulted in exactly the kind of potentially triggering display she and other highly visible figures in running have demanded be categorically off-limits. And predictably, as I’ll get to in an upcoming post, this display was met with a rousing virtual ovation.

The story centers on the combined experiences of six women who departed the program unhappy with head cross-country and track coach Robert Johnson’s required thrice-annual DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) scans to track athletes’ body-fat percentage and bone density. The women, five of whom left with collegiate eligibility remaining, describe these scans as producing yet one more stress-inducing number to chase—possibly a moving target—in an already high-pressure environment. Among their major points is that college team isn’t a professional team, and the expectation bar Johnson set for them was at a height more suited to the latter.

Goe describes the six women collectively feeling “at risk for eating disorders.” Considering that they were part of a Pac-12 running program, this ostensibly dour revelation seems something of a relief, because it means that these women have yet to cross a line in their minds they are determined not to. One of them says she has had nightmares about Hayward Field. Who hasn’t? I’ve been to Eugene, and if the whole town always smells like a giant bong moonlighting as a bus-station urinal, I wouldn’t be able to study and train there either. (Okay, that was cheap. Someone having nightmares about something she has long loved and excelled at, and is central to her personal and developing identity, isn’t funny at all. Maybe I was just in Eugene in the wrong year.)

One athlete’s e-mail to a deputy athletic director requesting a review of the process was allegedly forwarded, but if so, it appears to have landed in electronic purgatory.

The most glaring episode was Johnson asking an athlete out of the blue if she was taking birth control, explaining that her hips looked wider. I won’t argue with anyone who counts this body-shaming. It was, without question, an inappropriately abrupt approach, and this kind of shit is easily avoided (see below).

The quote that has probably earned Johnson the most opprobrium is this one:

“Track is nothing but numbers. A good mathematician probably could be a good track coach.”

I’m in the habit of taking quotes at face value when I’m openly shitting on people, so it would be unfair for me to say “What he really meant was…” here. On its face, Johnson’s claim is idiotic; to cite one easy example, this guy has formidable math chops, but his regular lapses into physical violence and humiliating soliloquies would probably limit his NCAA coaching options.

What Johnson really meant was “Being a good track coach requires a certain facility with math, but that is just one of many the disparate skills needed to legitimately attain that standing.”

Johnson also told Goe,

“We try not to let this weight issue be the pink elephant in the room. We try to approach it with conversation and we try to approach it with science. … That’s one thing the DEXA scan helps us do. It takes our personal opinions out of it.”

What I believe Johnson meant by this is that, given that athletes’ weight can’t be ignored, it makes more sense to rely on an image showing a transverse section of someone’s abdomen than to make pointed comments, possibly while an athlete is standing on a scale staring at a number she now sees as a ferocious enemy. It is clearly more humane, and I think the latter scenario is exactly what Johnson explicitly seeks to exclude from his program.

However, I can see how the instructions given to athletes following “failed” DEXA scans—cross-training on a bike, for example—can feel precisely like extended “body-shaming,” because I have no doubt that extra work feels like punishment for being too fat. In a sense, it is. But there is a clear difference between, say, putting someone on a scale and saying, “Those extra five pounds need to come from here and here and here” and having someone work toward a number.

And that brings up something I wish I had mentioned before, which is that when an older man you have entrusted with your entire athletic development is making any kind of comments to a younger woman about her ass and her tits, no matter the underlying reason, the whole experience will unavoidably bear the stink of sexual harassment, or intrusion, or something gross. I didn’t mention this because I had to be reminded of it by someone who wrote a great post about this blow-up.

If it comes to light that Johnson is indeed adding standard weigh-ins to this equation, then much of the three preceding paragraphs can be ignored, as this practice would seriously dilute the “we meddle as little as possible on the ground” claim—depending, perhaps, on what happens during those weigh-ins. But no matter how much of the coaching staff’s “personal opinions” Johnson’s process may remove from the weight-management game, a coach is expected to have certain opinions about his athletes, not act like Coach Spock of Team Star Trek. And some of these opinions cannot help but emerge in any discussion about any DEXA scan result. Johnson is therefore being somewhat evasive here.

And, zooming out a little, there is no evidence I am aware of that body-fat goals are automatically worthwhile for runners or anyone. Perhaps Johnson has had software busy establishing or not establishing correlations between body-fat level and performance for years. He was forthcoming to Goe about the technology he was using; would he be willing to say how he has used his data, without listing names?

All of this leads to a critical question: What are the explicit expectations of athletes entering the University of Oregon distance programs? Does Johnson mention the seasonal DEXA scans and their implications to recruits, or is this sprung on runners after they have committed to run for him? This isn’t explored in the article, and seems like another follow-up issue worth pursuing.

My overall sense is that, without explicitly saying so, the University of Oregon track programs are treated by the administration (and the school’s major corporate donor) as training camps meant to prepare a certain percentage of its runners for high-level professional careers. With, say, Nike. One departed athlete told Goe, “This program is just something different.”

What might be contributing to that? It’s in the article in bullet points, listed by Goe as reasons the Oregon runners he spoke with chose to remain anonymous:

• Oregon is one of the most nationally prominent college track and field programs.
• The school has a cozy relationship with Nike, which underwrites the funding for USA Track & Field and sponsors a high percentage of professional track athletes.
• Oregon’s Hayward Field, largely built with money donated by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, is the host of the Prefontaine Classic professional meet, the semi-permanent host of the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, next year’s USATF Outdoor Championships and the 2022 World Outdoor Championships.

It seems unlikely that the extraordinary amount of money the school has spent on imaging equipment and other niceties other colleges cannot afford is aimed only at capturing team championships, especially given the enormous collective post-collegiate success of a very long list of recent and forgotten Oregon grads. According to the article, Johnson has won 14 team titles in nine-plus seasons (his school bio says 13). That’s phenomenal, but when runners he has recently coached are landing in Olympic finals, their success can’t help but reflect on his job in a way that makes it more secure.

But should all incoming 18-year-old runners be expected to step up their game, perhaps in stark and unanticipated ways, simply because of this history and bombast? That seems like a big ask, no matter how open an ingenue’s eyes may appear to be. And this is going to result in an unavoidable number of student-parent decisions to commit to schools that later prove regrettable. In competitive sports, I don’t see any way to dispense of this unfortunate reality altogether.

As at any program, Johnson has to anticipate that a certain number of runners will thrive under his system while others will inevitably fall out, and if there was a way to determine for sure which group an athlete belongs to before bringing him or her on board, I’m sure all coaches would do this simply to avoid guaranteed difficulties and distractions for all concerned.

This doesn’t excuse any kind of body-shaming or mistreatment of athletes, including those who appear to tolerate it well. But from the article alone, I see charges of far-flung “body-shaming” to be off-base here. It’s appropriate to question what Johnson is doing without saddling him with the label of “insensitive boor.” But who knows; the story is new, and maybe some truly damning stuff will follow, though for some reason I don’t anticipate this happening. And I won’t argue with anyone who believes that the wide-hips comment is sufficient reason to call for Johnson’s ouster.

Also, I don’t want to suggest that people who have shitty collegiate running experiences should take instant refuge the wealth of future possibilities available to them, because at this point, those possibilities must feel like a consolation prize at best. But if you are in the position of any of these ex-Oregon runners, or are close to someone who is, please understand that those opportunities are there, lovely ones, in droves. The successful careers of Tera Moody and Laura Thweatt after “prematurely” leaving the University of Colorado’s revered program are just two examples of runners who not only bounced back from their collegiate woes, but went on to accomplish things that few people thought them capable of when they entered college.

I ran for an awful collegiate coach for two and a half years. He was worse than malicious, as that quality would have compelled me to quit sooner than I did. Instead, he was stone-cold lazy and a moron about running, a former javelin thrower with two fucked-up shoulders. He gave us no training plans for the summer, and a typical pre-conference-meet peaking session was six times 600 meters at 10K pace with several minutes of standing rest. Because he was a joke, it was easy to remain on the roster for a whole with the other beer-happy goofs, trudging gloriously through 26-minute 8Ks on easy courses. Various recent NCAA women’s championship-winning squads might have pipped us on any given afternoon. Members of the current Newbury Park High School team could erase almost all, and maybe all, of the school’s all-time distance records. You get the picture.

I developed both a solid drinking habit and an eating disorder in my first semester. The first thing took a while to become noticeably bad for a freshman at the University of Vermont in the late 1980s, but I was never going to tell a fucking soul about the second thing, most of all my coach. I decided that I had clearly brought my problems on myself; I was pulling straight A’s, but I was otherwise adjusting poorly to the environment as a whole and doing a lot of unruly things my way, in secret.

But after an extended skid during my sophomore cross-country season, I went into the coach’s office for a talk. I was already ashamed of what I was going to say, but I never got a chance to say it. What I saw in his expression was half-amusement, half-contempt. He assumed I was there to quit the team, a common reason for an unannounced student-athlete visit to this man’s office in street clothes. He was shaking his head before I was more than a few sentences in, which is when I knew what he was thinking. So I didn’t tell him anything about fuck-all. Instead, I told him a half-truth about being sleep-deprived and generally anxious, then realized that trying to conduct this exchange would be sub-useless. I was in tears, and this weepy stuff, in my coach’s sputtering ember of a mind, was not part of his job.

I did wind up quitting the team partway through my junior year. I was obviously unhappy at the time, but I never lost either my love for running or my desire to explore how good I could be at it, and there probably aren’t a lot of guys who exit college with PRs of 15:51 and 32:56 at a D-1 school—not even exceptional collegiate women’s times anymore—and go on to run 1:08 and 2:24 for the longer road distances, peaking in their mid-thirties. All six of those Oregon women “washouts” were good enough to earn a spot on the Oregon track team; some or all of them may go on to enjoy fruitful and enjoyable experiences, even careers, in competitive running. Hell, when I quit collegiate running in 1990, I didn’t even have all today’s trail, mountain, and ultra bullshit to turn to for muddy, shuffling solace.

That dumb motherfucker is now ensconced in the UVM Athletic Hall of Fame, simply because he held on to a sinecure for three decades. He was not malicious or entirely uncaring. But he managed to combine an absence of desire to win with no ability at all to be challenged, and he never should have been coaching at the collegiate level.

The Oregon track program appears to have little to gain, from its own perspective, by changing anything about what it does at this point. Its teams win—a lot. At least their coaches have goals other than farting up the same chair for another pointless season, much of that season spent boozing it up with the other coaches in the hotel bars at away meets.

Is Robert Johnson an optimal vessel for this undeniably successful, unusually data-driven system? In all honesty, despite not looking with unbridled admiration upon the corporate enterprise enabling and sustaining that system, it doesn’t present as a locus of widespread physical and spiritual deterioration. Perhaps more to the point, if he goes, whoever replaces him is going to do the same thing he’s doing, even if assumes a somewhat different shape.

Still, I am not without suggestions:

  • Don’t give athletes body-fat numbers to strive for as primary targets. If an athlete’s performances in competitions and workouts are slipping and body fat is on a sustained rise and there is good reason to believe food choices can be modified without revamping the athlete’s life, okay, maybe. (For all I know, this is roughly how Johnson and his assistants already approach the matter.)

  • Be transparent about the role(s) of staff nutritionists (and dieticians might be a better choice—or, since they’re sparing no expense, hire both).

  • Don’t be in a position to randomly ask runners if they’re using birth control. Make clear in advance of every season all expectations surrounding the use of prescription medications.

  • Maneuver a fleet of long-reach excavators to Hayward Field and demolish the entire complex, preferably on Halloween.

This video of former New York Jets coach Herm Edwards illustrates to me the brightest line anyone can articulate between reasonable expectations of college runners and reasonable expectations of contracted professional runners.

To some, Edwards sounds like an aging dudebro with a one-track mind. Others watch this video and experience an immediate urge to go outside and run up some steep hills.

Some collegiate runners naturally possess an unyielding singular focus on doing everything asked of them to win or not bothering at all. And it can be developed in some others. But it can't be instilled in everyone, including those on scholarship, even at programs that operate as para-professional organizations. And sometimes, people’s bodies simply don’t cooperate no matter how strongly their minds want to push those bodies to their limits, and regardless of how well they follow instructions from on high.

Right or wrong, the job of college coaches is to win. Some of them don’t take this task remotely seriously and their teams are accordingly dismal. It’s practically impossible for a running team at any level to perform well with an apathetic, nonresponsive layabout at the helm, even a noncontroversial one. It’s easy for this kind of coach to coast for a remarkably long time at any of the countless colleges where cross-country is a token flywheel in the sports machine, but it’s far less common a Power Five conference.

Ideally, this focus on winning team championships meshes with, or at least does not antagonize, the idea of some roster members moving on to professional running careers, or least still wanting to go for an occasional jog at 23. But if it does, various unknown futures may be compromised for the benefit of known and achievable goals in the present. Unless the main priority of NCAA coaches is somehow transformed into something else, this reality will remain. It’s up to the shepherds and guardians of the sport to try to make sense of the unavoidable losses and make sure no one gets badly hurt, but this is never going to be an easy sport. That’s about the only thing that makes it worth a damn. That, and all of the people I’m going to be seeing in New England next week.

Over the weekend, I’ll review the ill-advised Instagram post I mentioned up top. I was going to append that review here, but I lost the plot a little when I started thinking about my own college experiences. I’m glad I did.