Each Sunday, we send newsletter subscribers one piece of longform journalism we call The Sunday Long Read. In this edition, contributor Justin Horneker speaks with the NYRR employees behind the Instagram account that brought down the CEO of world's most important running organization. Sign up here to receive the Sunday Long Read each week.
In 2015, New York Road Runners were convinced they'd found their man. Michael Capiraso was a slick marketing veteran with high-level corporate experience at brands like Calvin Klein and Cole Haan, and billion-dollar sports leagues like the NFL and Major League Baseball. The board of directors were comfortable with elevating Capiraso, as he'd been in NYRR's leadership inner circle since 2012, and was recently elevated to chief operating officer. He was seen as the key person who would bring in big-dollar business and innovate NYRR's brand, evolving into the next phase of the non-profit organization's long history.
NYRR had leveraged tens of millions of dollars in real estate holdings and the global crown jewel of distance running in the New York City Marathon to evolve from a grassroots club to a dominant force in running. But the organization needed a corporate visionary — someone with deep connections and a profit-driven approach in order to sell the New York Road Runners image to more paying customers across a broadening range of products and services (i.e. races and run groups), and attract team sport-style sponsorship deals.
Capiraso stepped in at a crucial moment: running was still booming but the easy money of the last 15 years was starting to dry up as millennials rose to prominence, challenging boomers as the running industry's key target market. They wanted big experiences, but also wanted to be sold on a brand's world view. As is often the challenge in running, NYRR had to be everything to everyone.
Capiraso delivered quickly as CEO. The NYRR was finally able to end a weak deal with Asics, moving on to forward-thinking partnerships with New Balance (Capiraso's first big splash, reportedly worth $150-$170 million — one source told The XC that it seemed New Balance was bidding against itself at the time) and AirBnB, among others. He was future-proofing the organization from the challenges that laid ahead for the industry.
Five years later, everything has changed. NYRR is richer, and the Marathon more popular (and profitable) than ever.
The New York City Marathon is the most desirable running event in the world. About 100,000 people in 2019 paid for the privilege just to enter a lottery for the mere chance to run the race, with less than a 20% chance of even getting an entry. The lucky winners were granted the opportunity to pay hundreds of dollars for an entry — a bib costing between $300-$350 USD, depending if you are an American or an international runner. Those who didn't score a bib were encouraged to run several other NYRR events in order to eventually guarantee entry through a pricey loyalty funnel. During Capiraso's tenure as CEO, NYRR's flagship event seemed indestructible — even pandemic proof.
But current and former employees say that Capiraso also created an environment where non-white staffers were marginalized, passed over for promotions that were ultimately won by less experienced white candidates, their concerns ignored, but their image leveraged for profit and public relations purposes. And when the pandemic hit, the situation only became worse, forcing a call to action.
Last week, Michael Capiraso was forced to resign after his leadership came under fire throughout the summer and fall. A relentless group of past and present NYRR employees took to Instagram in the aftermath of the organization's awkward handling of the Black Lives Matter movement under the moniker RebuildNYRR, posting anonymously about significant issues of systemic racism and outright abuse at the organization. They accuse Capiraso of cultivating a toxic culture and failing to address diversity concerns. While NYRR’s outward facing social media and PR efforts described a diverse community and viewpoints, a group of current and former staffers claim this is yet another example of performative allyship in the running community.
Five years after Capiraso began his tenure at NYRR with a big financial splash, he is out, forced to resign due to mounting scrutiny in the aftermath of the Rebuild NYRR campaign. But will his ouster signify a real culture shift within NYRR, and within the running industry as a whole?
This could be seen as closure for the #RebuildNYRR movement but in reality this is just the beginning. Now, with their initial demand — the resignation of Capiraso — satiated, Rebuild NYRR wants to move forward by shining a light on the board's actions and core values going forward.
NYRR’s employees allege that the growth of the marathon has taken precedence over the organization’s original mission statement. For the past five years, the extraordinary financial growth and steady erosion of the NYRR’s culture was steered by Capiraso. Current and former employees, who spoke anonymously in fear of reprisal, say he cultivated a reactionary and abusive culture, and one that marginalized BIPOC staffers, but then used them and members of NYRR programs for front-facing marketing efforts in order to seem inclusive and diverse to the public.
According to Rebuild NYRR, there are still crucial demands that need to be met for NYRR to ease concerns that this isn't an attempt to throw Capariso under the bus and move on without addressing the real concerns of their employees.
"We want to see policy, procedure and core values to support transparency and diversity, equity, and inclusion," Rebuild NYRR told me last week in the aftermath of Capiraso's resignation. "We want to see senior leaders held accountable or removed, and a shift from profit-centric work to community centric work."
NYRR has yet to respond directly to their 13 point list of recommendations.
The Call To Step Down
While talking with NYRR staff this week, it became evident that Capiraso has been keeping these problems from the NYRR board and the running community at large.
“Capiraso has the growth and revenue numbers from the world’s largest marathon in his back pocket and uses that as a shield against accountability,” one current NYRR employee told me during a Zoom call last week.
The potential financial greed is just another aspect of RebuildNYRR’s case against Capiraso. A read through NYRR’s public tax forms reveals that the non-profit’s upper level management take in salaries that puts them in the top 10% of the non-profit sector, even after taking into account Capiraso’s 20% pay cut in 2020 due to the pressures brought on by revenue losses during the Pandemic.
A typical non-profit CEO makes around $103,345 with just 10% making over $205,000. Capariso made $479,195; all of this to say that NYRR upper level management are incredibly well compensated. This disparity between leadership and staff became a point of obvious friction when races were cancelled throughout 2020, and NYRR reportedly laid off 11 percent of its workforce and furlough another 28 percent.” This 11 percent number has been disputed by NYRR employees who claim the actual number of furloughed employees was much higher.
NYRR employees allege that the layoffs and furloughs inexcusably affected the organization's minority employees. NYRR initially communicated these layoffs via a "town hall" Zoom call where Capiraso joined in from what those on the call described as a lavish summer home outside of the city, where he was riding out the worst days of the pandemic as it ravaged New York. Staffers said that the contrast to their conditions — small apartments and stifling city life — was symbolic of the rift between leadership and employees at the organization. These layoffs and downsizing included the majority of NYRR’s digital marketing team as well as a refusal to hire a Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and opting instead to hire a director of digital marketing — after the furloughs and hiring freezes occurred — despite promises that a Vice President of DEI would be prioritized.
There is a surprising lack of transparency from NYRR and it’s board of directors given the times we are in and that falls solely on the shoulders of Capiraso. Employees associated with Rebuild NYRR allege that this lack of transparency infiltrates the HR department in a way that doesn’t allow for proper documentation of HR complaints.
This is extremely problematic for a company where past BIPOC employees claim to have been told to chemically relax their hair to "appear more professional," only speak English inside the office, and not to post about social justice issues on their own personal social media. On top of these micro-aggressions, and outright harassment, is the promise to hire a more diverse HR department, which reportedly was never followed up upon after an initial conversation.
It is one thing to post Black Lives Matter on your Instagram or express your love for the Black running community in a social media post but there comes a point where there needs to be receipts.
The outward facing image of NYRR feels insincere when you learn of the company’s treatment towards its non-white employees and its refusal to be transparent in its hiring and promotion practices. Non-white employees have been in the same position for years while watching less qualified white individuals pass them up in promotion opportunities, according to current and former employees. The lack of proactive solutions paints a picture of an ally who only cares about its public perception yet is perfectly fine with the status quo.
NYRR began its outreach programs, under founding president Ted Corbitt, in order to grow and give back to the greater running community. One of its key mandates was to foster running in throughout the greater New York City area, both to grow its participant base at its events, but also ostensibly to improve the reach and health of the running community. But as Rebuild NYRR points out, these outreach programs and running events have targeted wealthy, predominantly white areas, and runs and races are mainly held in Manhattan, Brooklyn and along the East River, while rarely reaching into underserved areas of the community.
This isn’t an unfixable problem.
Cultivating A Reactive Atmosphere
My biggest hang up towards bringing these allegations to light via this article is a fear that any NYRR reaction just further crystallizes the organization's reactive atmosphere. Upper management’s response towards any of the complaints expressed by current and former employees has been to appease the employee in the moment and never follow up on the concerns — even going as far as calling a former Black employee’s claims "untrue" despite there being evidence of the alleged incident.
This reactive culture is loud and clear when you look into NYRR’s response to the senseless killing of George Floyd as the world concentrated on social justice issues in America. A look into NYRR’s social media shows that it never commented on Ahmaud Arbery’s death after he was effectively lynched while running on Feb. 23. NYRR didn’t make a public statement until May 31st more than three months later, when it became too risky for a brand not to condemn the murder. In a now deleted instagram post, NYRR called “for justice for all” and refused to acknowledge the specific Black Lives Matter movement, seemingly hedging in fear of upsetting those not in favor of social justice reform.
On June 1, NYRR released a second statement, “Yesterday, we wanted to speak up to show we stand against racism toward the Black community. We missed the mark; we did not address the racial injustices the Black community endures.”
This statement came after NYRR staff had been pleading with the organization for a full week to make a statement, fuelled in part by the lack of response to Arbery’s murder back in February. Capiraso is alleged to have crafted the initial NYRR statement that drew backlash from the community and further added tension to an already fractured relationship between NYRR's leadership and its employees.
Simply put, the organization has not served their minority employees in a way that makes them feel valued, especially evident after the Boston Athletic Association, which runs the Boston Marathon, announced Ahmaud Arbery as an honorary member of their marathon team.
NYRR’s internal Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Report
Earlier this year, NYRR commissioned a diversity, equity, and inclusion report to potentially address some of these culture issues within the organization. DEI reports allow organizations to observe potential diversity issues in the workplace in an anonymous forum. The lack of transparency is especially evident when you look at the lack of public minutes from NYRR board meetings — another demand from the Rebuild NYRR group.
Ultimately, the problems within NYRR could be happening inside any running club in the country — the lack of diversity in the workplace to the whitewashing of the general running community. Employees stressed to me that coming forward isn’t an attempt to destroy NYRR but instead to fix fundamental issues and return to the vision and inclusivity of NYRR founder Ted Corbitt.
RebuildNYRR’s Demands For A Better NYRR
Below is the list of expectations from a group of current and former staffers at the running non-profit.
- Immediate removal of Michael Capiraso, president and CEO and board member, as he fosters toxic, discriminatory, and systemically racist work culture at NYRR.
- Conduct an independent pay equity audit, communicate results, and take corrective action to remediate disparities.Analyze pay equity gaps around gender and race and ensure that equity has been built into current/future compensation structureCorrective action should include capping bonuses of senior leaders to $25,000 so added compensation doesn’t exceed salary amounts of full-time staff.Include an analysis of promotions
- Restructure Human Resources and accompanying policies and procedures to foster an anti-racist and anti-discriminatory workplace.Amend internal investigation policies to be transparent with formalized timelines, communicated resolutions, and extended protection to complainants.Develop a system to track, monitor, and analyze employee issues/investigationsCommit to transparency on salary range and what determines to pay for job posting (current policy is non-disclosure until an offer is made)Hire HR specialists in people management, conflict resolution, cultural competency, and implementation of DEI work. Compensate employees for leading ERGs (Employee Resource Groups)
- Communicate results from DEI audit, commit to sustained action by the new CEO, and integrate results through visible leadership and a willingness to address and rectify an organizational culture that promotes White dominance.
- Commit to DEI integration in all segments of business and program operations, not just workplace culture.Finalize hiring VP of DEI who will commit to integrating DEI into all operations including media and PR.
Commit to centering BIPOC communities we serve and involving people directly impacted into the planning, implementation, and evaluation of services and policies.
- A new, external, President and CEO hired by a diverse search committee, in close cooperation with staff (representing all levels and all departments), with demonstrated leadership in community-based non-profit work.
- Conduct an independent audit on youth and community programming and investigate possible financial malfeasance.
- Develop a philanthropy strategy that centralizes fundraising under one umbrella and is reflective of all youth and community programs and supports NYRR as a running community organization.
- Board chairs commit to monthly all-staff check-ins until the new president and CEO is hired and commit to future staff check-ins (without SLT’s).
- Hire an independent interim CEO to lead the organization until a permanent and external president and CEO is hired.
I discussed running’s diversity issues in a recent episode of my podcast featuring Latoya Snell, Latoya is a runner/activist in New York and we talked about issues very similar to the issues RebuildNYRR has encountered.
Editor's note: an earlier version of this story first appeared on Horneker's Medium page. The story has been updated and modified to include subsequent reporting in the aftermath of Capiraso's resignation.