Last night at the Hoka One One Classic, 800-meter runner Boris Berian tweeted that he was being sued by Nike:
After a breakout performance at the 2015 Adidas Grand Prix meet, in which Berian placed a close second to world record holder David Rudisha, he was quickly picked up by Nike. That was mid-June 2015.
As of January 2016, just six months later, Berian was racing in a New Balance kit. (He also trains with the New Balance-sponsored Big Bear Track Club.) His agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, told me via email that, “Boris’ Nike contract expired at the end of 2015,” and added that, “there is a disagreement about a specific clause of that contract.”
Keflezighi was probably referring to the “right to match” clause, a fairly common feature in Nike’s endorsement agreements. Kevin Durant’s agreement with Nike had a similar clause:
Nike, which saw its signature business related to the Oklahoma City Thunder forward grow to roughly $175 million at retail last season, will have the right to match, which is a condition of Durant’s current contract with the brand. Durant can still choose Nike if it doesn’t match but can’t legally choose Under Armour if Nike does.
Though Berian ran well at Diamond League races later in the 2015 season, he failed to make the outdoor World Championship team. As his tweet indicates, Berian (and his agent) understood his Nike contract to expire on the last day of 2015. A six-month contract seems exceptionally brief—most are for at least a year, and include the right to match stipulation.
Response to Nike’s suit from the running community was swift:
T-Mobile CEO John Legere has been a high-profile supporter of running and runners, putting his money where his mouth is by injecting big bonus prize money at the NYC Half Marathon, and recently placing the winning bid when Nick Symmonds auctioned off ad space on his arm.
If Berian did indeed violate the terms of his agreement with Nike, it’s understandable they would try to claw him back—Berian is a strong contender to make the Olympic team. But slapping an athlete with a lawsuit in the middle of a big track meet? Bad timing, and even worse PR.
There’s three kinds of bitter irony, for Berian, all carefully considered by the Nike legal team.
- This will certainly cost Berian in stressful distraction at a time when, six weeks out from the US Track Trials, he should be concentrating fully on training.
- He’s a professional runner, which means he has very little in the way of income or material goods. If he loses money in this deal, it’s likely to be whatever pittance (as compared to, say, a basketball endorsement contract) Nike coughed up in their six months of sponsorship.
- And maybe the bitterest pill of all—if Berian ends up making the Olympic team, he’ll be wearing the logo of the company that sued him (as up top).
Nike didn’t respond to an email requesting comment on Berian’s tweet.
Update (6:20 p.m.): Berian’s agent sent along a bit more specific of a statement:
Nike has filed a lawsuit for declaratory relief and for injunctive relief regarding an expired contract. The dispute regards interpretation of contract language.
Update #2 (2:30 p.m. Monday, May 23): Nike emailed the following statement:
Nike values its relationships with athletes and we expect them to honor their contractual commitments. Where necessary we’ll take steps to protect our rights. We have no further comment on ongoing litigation.
Go out and get some exercise.