“Nike ego takes over,” 1500-meter runner Will Leer told me. “They never let something happen on your terms. They want to solidify the power structure—they have all the power, the athlete has none.”
At about the same time 800-meter runner Boris Berian was trying to extricate himself from a Nike contract, Leer, a Nike-sponsored athlete from 2007 to 2015, was embroiled in a similar but less public struggle.
“When I asked to be released from the contract, they said ‘Absolutely not,’” said Leer. “I was abandoned by my agent, alienated, and legally enslaved to Nike. I had to continue to run for a company I no longer wanted to endorse because the legal recourse would bankrupt me. They hold you by the balls. That’s what their contracts are designed to do—protect Nike’s interest above all else.”
Unlike Berian, who spent a scant seven months with Nike, Leer had been a content, if, as he now recognizes, uninformed, Nike athlete for eight years. But by the beginning of 2016, Leer’s thoughts were: I am not running for Nike. I’m going to get out of this contract if it’s the last thing I do.
So why the change of heart?
Leer happily signed a contract with Nike just after graduating from D-III Pomona College. Like most other track and field athletes, he was forbidden by a nondisclosure agreement from talking about the details of his contract, but social stigma kept him quiet, too. In our society, it can feel like your compensation is what you’re worth. No one wants to talk about making less than $15,000 a year, below the poverty line, as many so-called professional track and field athletes do, because it indicates you aren’t a very good athlete.
“No one in track and field talks about how much they make,” said Leer. “Even teammates don’t talk about it. In an office, people talk about compensation because they want to make sure they’re being fairly paid. In track and field, everyone hints they’re making more than they really do. You’ll be damned if you talk about how little money you really make because it’s a reflection of your value. You don’t want people to think less of you.”
Nondisclosure agreements legally lock in ignorance about amounts and details of contracts—track and field athletes know the threat to sue if they break it isn’t an idle one. But Nike partially lifted the veil of secrecy when they sued Berian, revealing publicly for the first time the brutal compensation reductions and lack of rights athletes common to some endorsement deals.
“At the beginning of 2013 I signed a peanuts contract with Nike,” said Leer. “It was a two-year contract, with two years of options. Yeah, it was full of reductions. I read the options as a two-way street—that either Nike or I could agree to extend the contract. It was never explained to me that the option was only theirs. My agent at the time, Chris Layne, said ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.’ He said I was lucky to have these option years. It was explained to me that a four-year contract was great, but a lot can change in four years.”
And in fact, Leer went from a pretty good D-III runner to posting a world-class 3:34.26 in 2014.
“What I didn’t realize,” Leer said, “was that the option was Nike’s to keep me at the same low level I’d signed at the beginning of 2013. That’s guaranteed for two years. Then after that, every year, your head’s on the chopping block. And if you’re running well, as I was, you lose the ability to renegotiate that original low compensation rate.”
Leer is a pretty cerebral guy with a strong moral compass, his allegiances not ruled, he says, by contractual status. In 2014, he called the disqualification of Gabriele Grunewald, a Brooks athlete, “a disgrace,” even though the DQ was engineered by a Nike coach. “I stand behind things I say in the press,” said Leer. “I always thought that was something Nike valued about me—that I had a strong moral ground.”
While both Leer and Nike had had a mutually satisfactory relationship on the whole, that changed in June 2015.
“Most of this arose from an incident between [Nike global director of athletics] John Capriotti and [Brooks coach] Danny Mackey. I was present to hear him verbally and physically threaten a man, a respected coach, and friend of mine. The moment I heard him [Capriotti] screaming and swearing in front of other athletes is when I thought, ‘I don’t want anything to do with this company.’”
“The bullying, the mafioso tactics, the machismo—that’s not how I want to live my life. That’s not a company I want to advocate for. Stories about how violent Capriotti can be are legend in track and field, but when I witnessed it firsthand, it made every other story ring true, and confirmed this was not the type of company I wanted to be associated with.”
Leer was asked by Jonathan Gault, of the popular running website Letsrun, to corroborate a police report where multiple people alleged Capriotti had threatened to kill Danny Mackey. Letsrun’s article came out in August 2015. “I heard crickets [from Nike],” said Leer. “I thought that was strange, since a fellow Nike athlete who attended the grand opening of a Oiselle store had been forced to write a letter of apology for attending an event sponsored by another company.”
Still unaware that Nike held a unilateral option to extend his contract, around November 2015 Leer approached his agent, Chris Layne, saying that he thought he could get more from other companies and that they should shop around. Aside from thinking he was worth more than the Nike contract was paying him, Leer simply didn’t want to represent Nike any more.
“I don’t believe Nike is a terrible company. They’re no better or worse than any major apparel brand—all that crap is made in the same factory by sweatshop labor. But their sports marketing department could be replaced with better people. Their MO is all about the bottom line, egos outweigh performance. As an athlete, I thought I could have a little ability to choose who I ran for.
“Nike used the Letsrun article as leverage against me, and told Chris they were going to keep me on as an athlete at the same low level I’d signed at the beginning of 2013. This was about the middle of November . Chris indicated he was very much in my camp if we wanted to fight this.”
But Leer said that Layne, whose business depends upon negotiating contracts, some with Nike, changed his mind.
“Chris came back to me about a week before Christmas  and said, ‘Well, if you want to continue fighting this we can’t work together. It’s bad for business.’ I’ve been with Chris Layne for a decade but loyalty went out the window. My agent left me high and dry. This is someone who’s supposed to be in your court, actually doing their job, fighting for athletes rather than being pawns of shoe companies.”
Layne, managing director of Total Sports US, said, “This was a very unfortunate and isolated situation with Will. He chose to drive the process while also seeking outside legal representation. I felt it was in our best interest to end the relationship. This wasn’t about Nike. I would’ve made this decision with any brand.”
At the end of 2015, when his first option year was expiring and it appeared he would not have the right to renegotiate the second option year’s compensation, Leer asked Nike to terminate his contract. They refused. (Nike didn’t respond to a request for comment about this or anything else Leer said.)
“They were keeping me on their payroll to spite me,” Leer said. “They were getting my brand for pennies on the dollar just to spite me. By not granting my wish, Nike was willing to send me the money that was on my contract to keep me against my will at which point I said, ‘I am not running for Nike. I’m going to get out of this contract if it’s the last thing I do.’ I got a half-dozen lawyers involved. I spent four months actively fighting, trying to find any way, any vague terminology I could use to my free myself from the indentured servitude, the enslavement that was my Nike contract.”
Leer says during this four-month period at the beginning of 2016, he never deposited the checks Nike continued to send—a month late on a quarterly paycheck, he claims—in case it ever came to litigation, as Boris Berian’s complaint did. Leer survived on savings. He did not, like Berian, wear competitors’ clothing, but instead of giving Nike free advertising, he blurred out the swoosh on his Instagram photos.
He also posted cryptic warnings to other athletes:
Public Service Announcement to all collegiate athletes considering running professionally: DO NOT sign a contract with an AGENT or SPONSOR without fully understanding the terms of the agreement. The wording of many contracts is intentionally vague and rarely in the best interest of the ATHLETE. Do not be embarrassed by not understanding what a contract is asking of you. This is done intentionally in an effort to protect the COMPANY at the expense of the ATHLETE. Be careful. Protect yourself. You will be glad you did.
Additionally, if you decide on an ATHLETE REPRESENTATIVE or “AGENT”, make sure they can deliver on their promises (contract value, terms, duration, etc.) before you sign a contract with them. Make sure the contract you sign with an AGENT does not allow them to abandon you should a dispute arise between ATHLETE and SPONSOR. I highly recommend hiring a lawyer, independent of your agent, to read over ANY contract before you sign it. This is an investment in yourself and protects you in the future. If a company values you as an endorser of their product, they will work with you on the terms of an agreement. Do not accept “INDUSTRY STANDARD” or “STATUS QUO”. This is terminology used to take rights away from the ATHLETE.
Leer said Nike exercised every possible reduction of his compensation in early 2016, but refused to release him from the contract. He knew that continuing to fight the Nike legal department or, even worse, going to court, would eventually bankrupt him. But in May, something changed.
“Finally—I don’t know whether it was Boris’s case or that people starting taking notice of my social media posts—but in the second week of May I got an email from Nike legal department saying they were terminating my contract. It was on their terms—they were firing me rather than me quitting.”
Free at last, Leer contacted some friends at Brooks who sent him non-swooshed clothing, but he’s not yet decided who he’ll run for or what logo he’ll be sporting at the U.S. Olympic Trials, where he’ll try for the U.S. team at 1500 meters. One decision he has made? A new agent—Hawi Keflezighi, the same guy that went to bat for Boris Berian against Nike.
“Hawi believes strongly in athletes’ rights,” said Leer. “And he’s a trained lawyer. He’s one of the only agents capable of sifting through the bullshit of these contracts. Nike will work with any agent if they really want the athlete, but it’s up to Hawi if he wants to work with Nike.”