Grid, a weekly magazine in Chicago, noticed that the best public high schools for basketball in Chicago—a city where high school basketball gets foldout sections in newspapers and crowds pack the stands for big match-ups—wear a lot of Nike gear. Grid correctly assumed that most of those schools lack the budget flexibility to buy the apparel themselves, and zeroed in on Simeon, whose phenom Jabari Parker recently committed to Duke, and which has been a force in Chicago hoops from Ben Wilson's ill-fated tenure in '80s to Derrick Rose's happier one in the mid-aughts. It turns out Nike has its tendrils pretty deep in Simeon basketball:
The young star has been obligated to wear Nike gear on court since his sophomore year, when [Simeon head coach Robert] Smith signed a four-year contract with the Oregon-based shoemaker. The contract, obtained by Grid through a Freedom of Information Act request, provides players at Simeon, a public high school, with new Nike shoes and apparel worth about $26,000 per year. And it has resulted in more than $1 million worth of exposure for Nike, mostly thanks to Parker's rarefied status.
The contract also offers a rare glimpse into the world of unregulated deals between public schools and sports marketers. Sponsorship deals like Simeon's have become common for top-tier high-school athletic programs - but public schools without blue-chip talent get little or no corporate largesse. Apparel-makers and other companies cut deals with individual schools without the involvement of Chicago Public Schools, allowing sponsors to lavishly underwrite some schools and ignore others. The district lets individual schools sign sponsorship deals and doesn't track the contracts, according to a spokesman. Nike and other companies won't disclose how much they spend or which schools they do business with. Nike's contract contains a confidentiality clause prohibiting Simeon staff from discussing the deal's terms.
The story notes, "Official district policy requires schools to report all equipment donations to [Chicago Public Schools] officials." Simeon didn't, and CPS told reporters that they're looking into it. CPS also noted, "Most of the sponsorships are directly between schools and the manufacturers and not something that is tracked centrally either through Sports Administration or through the Partnerships Office." The Illinois High School Association candidly told the magazine, "We don't really get involved in that sense of ‘this is what you should or shouldn't do." They aren't launching an investigation, and don't bet that CPS "looking into it" means curtains for the practice. At most, it will probably mean stricter reporting guidelines from now on.
Still, this is a worthy exercise. We support anyone digging around public records, especially for keeping tabs on Nike, which has a habit of partnering with coaches and athletes that go from squeaky clean to ethically compromised in two shakes of a neoprene water bottle, and basically owns its own public university at this point. For all the good reporting, though, the story nudges readers toward the conclusion that Simeon and Nike are engaged in something inherently unethical. (The sub-headline gravely reads, "Guess who comes out on top.") As sleazy and Orwellian as marketing strategy can get, Simeon's choice to secure funding for its athletic program—"cash-strapped," like many others in the city—through a deal with Nike is a lot better than the alternative.
Simeon got $26,075 worth of jerseys and equipment this past season. The contract Grid FOIA'd stipulates that Nike receives two things in return:
- A Nike swoosh banner hangs in in the gym
- The "exclusive right" to use footage of Parker's high school games in commercials
Though you may want to keep brand iconography away from kids, that battle is something of a luxury, and pretty clearly a lost cause. That's Parker in his room, below. I spot two Nike logos, a famous Nike poster, and two logos for Air Jordan (a division of Nike).
These sorts of sponsorships are the prevailing model at every level, but the rule in the U.S. is that amateur athletes don't get to share the rewards of their work until they go pro, when they're rewarded disproportionately or fall off the face of the earth. At Duke, the merest whiff that Parker has an unreported contract will get him benched or excommunicated. For now, it's hard to get upset that Simeon and other Chicago public schools treat their athletic programs as symbiotic relationships, where teams benefit the school and the school accepts funding to keep the team comfortable and sustainable. Add that to the list of NCAA crimes—making unchecked corporate influence look like a positively righteous alternative to the sanctimonious hand-waving of the NCAA's many compliance officers.
How Nike Scored Exclusive Rights To Jabari Parker's Feet [Chicago Grid]