Nike is steamed that 800-meter star Boris Berian has had the temerity to both reject their contract offer and continue to run very well, all the while wearing New Balance gear. In fact, they’re so riled up over losing Berian—who only two years ago was flipping burgers—they’ve filed for a federal court order to stop him from competing in a competitor’s kit.
Now, barely four weeks out from the Olympic Trials, Berian tweeted this:
Recall that a few weeks ago, Nike opted to serve Berian with a breach of contract lawsuit while cameras were rolling at a big track meet. Public opinion has thus far been mostly on Berian’s side, and one of the more interesting aspects of Nike versus Berian has been Nike’s incredible tone deafness.
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The other interesting aspect is the amount and details of a track and field athlete’s contract becoming public, which to the best of my knowledge has never happened before: Spoiler: A base salary of $375,000 over three years, and hours worth of eventualities beyond that, but let’s move on.
The snafu centers around a disagreement as to whether Nike matched New Balance’s contract offer in every regard. After Berian busted out of nowhere and finished in second place at a Diamond League meet in June 2015, Nike hustled over to the unsponsored runner with a contract that expired December 31 of that year. Like many endorsement contracts, it contained a right of first refusal that allowed Nike to match any competitor’s offer if they so chose.
New Balance—which sponsors the Big Bear Track Club, where Berian runs—made the above-mentioned contract offer of $375,000 over three years in January. Notably, as discovered in court filings and first reported by LetsRun, the contract did not include reductions—sometimes steep slashes in base salary if the athlete fails to hit certain standards.
Per Nike’s right of first refusal, Berian’s agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, presented New Balance’s offer to Nike. Nike agreed to match the offer, but returned a contract that included reductions. Nike’s lawyers apparently thought New Balance was either being negligent or purposefully tricking them by hiding a reduction clause, when in fact it seems that there simply wasn’t one. “Nike firmly believes that any New Balance contract actually offered to Defendant included reductions,” said Nike in a court filing, “given that they are such a standard provision of endorsement contracts.”
So Berian had two very similar offers, but Nike’s included reductions, which would’ve severely cut into his income if he were to get injured or simply run some bad races. Berian took that to not constitute a match, and was therefore free to fly the New Balance flag.
Now, if at this point Berian had begun tanking, Nike probably would’ve quietly forgotten all about that silly contract talk and congratulated themselves on getting out of the loser business. But Berian didn’t begin tanking. In fact, he raced well indoors—wearing New Balance—and capped it off by winning the World Indoor Championships 800 Meter in March. He kept it going outdoors, piling up New Balance-clad win after New Balance-clad win. The final straw came on May 28, when Berian won the televised, world-class 800 meters at the Diamond League Prefontaine Classic, in Nike’s backyard, in 1:44.20, the third fastest time in the world in 2016.
See that photo at the top of the article? That’s how Berian looked winning the Diamond League Prefontaine Classic—notice the New Balance logos on his shoulder and thigh. Can’t you just see the big veins on Nike execs’ foreheads going boom?
Nike’s lawyers claim that the company will suffer “irreparable harm” if Berian is allowed to continue running in non-swooshed gear. But if Berian is being forced out of races this month—and possibly the Olympic Trials that begin on July 1—as his tweet indicates—what is Nike really winning here? Are they hoping that by threatening to torpedo his career, Berian will be forced to come crawling back?
It is clear that Berian wants nothing to do with Nike, while Nike must speak out of both sides of their mouth, claiming Berian is causing “irreparable harm,” while also writing that Nike, “remains extremely enthusiastic about continuing to work with you and is committed to maintaining a positive and mutually beneficial working relationship in the future.”
If this is the way Nike enthusiastically maintains a positive working relationship, one shudders to think how they’d go about really being jerks.