Sports Law Blog
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Tuesday, July 25, 2006
More on "Donated" Sneakers, Brand Loyalty, and Title IX

In the last couple of weeks, we've discussed how shoe companies are arguably manipulating children by "donating" high-priced sneakers to young basketball players as a way of building brand loyalty, and also how by only donating to boys, they may be inducing schools to violate Title IX (see The Salivating Army and Justin Jenifer post).

There are two more great stories on this topic. One is by Rachel Bachman of the Portland Oregonian ("Shoe deals sidestep rules on equality in schools," June 12, 2006, archived). She details possible Title IX infractions and interviews a number of key people involved, including a surprisingly-forthcoming Tony Dorado, Nike's national manager for high school basketball, and Tulsa Law professor Ray Yasser, who has handled over 40 Title IX cases:
Hoping to curry favor and associate themselves with budding sports stars, usually in basketball, companies give shoes and gear to high school teams. Nike, Adidas and Reebok sponsor about 300 high school basketball teams nationwide, a widely accepted practice that merely rewards the best programs, some coaches say.

But experts say that when a school accepts free goods for a team of one gender while providing nothing for a team of the other gender, it is breaking the law. Title IX bans sex discrimination in
schools, whether in the classroom or sports. And although most high school officials grasp the need to provide equal opportunities and facilities, the issue of private donations to sports teams remains misunderstood.

"The school has an obligation under Title IX to provide equal benefit,"said Linda Carpenter, professor emerita at Brooklyn College and co-author of a book on Title IX. "So if the guys' team receives benefit from Nike in the form of shoes, bags, etc., then an equal proportion of the women's program needs to receive similar benefit."

At many schools, that is not happening. About 75 percent of the high school teams sponsored by Nike, the national leader in basketball-shoe sales, are boys teams, said Tony Dorado, Nike's national manager for high school basketball. That figure is driven by a market in which boys buy far more basketball merchandise than girls do, Dorado said . . .

Nike's goal in sponsoring high school teams is to identify with the nation's best programs and players and boost sales of gear to schools' nonsponsored teams, Dorado said. The idea is to build brand loyalty, and the jackpot is when a player on a sponsored team reaches the NBA, signs an endorsement contract and helps the company sell millions of shoes.

Ray Yasser, a law professor at the University of Tulsa, said he has worked with the Schiller Law Firm of Cookeville, Tenn., to handle about 40 Title IX cases. All of them have settled favorably for the plaintiffs, Yasser said. The issue of schools accepting shoe-company donations for only one gender has come up before, Yasser said, but has not become public because none of his cases went to trial. "The irony of the shoe thing is, every time we've done it, we've raised it, all I had to do is ask the shoe companies," Yasser said. "And if they're giving shoes to the boys, they'll give them to the girls. They're further ahead of the curve than some of the administrators are."
Here's another great piece: Bob Hohler's stunning exposé in the Boston Globe on independent coach/recruiter Thomas J. ``TJ" Gassnola, whose tactics in building "brand loyalty" have earned him a notorious and feared reputation ("$neaker War," July 23, 2006). Check out how Hohler's piece--the first of an of an excellent three-part series on youth basketball and marketing--begins:
A brazen foot soldier in a multibillion-dollar war between sneaker makers for the soles of America's youth, Thomas J. ``TJ" Gassnola has peddled basketball dreams to inner-city adolescents across New England despite a lengthy criminal history and prodigious legacy of financial delinquency.

The face of youth basketball in the region for Adidas, Gassnola is a free-wheeling recruiter whose tactics often have clashed with rules set by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to protect amateur athletes who aspire to careers in college sports. Some of his practices underscore the inability of the NCAA and other watchdog agencies to adequately police abuses in summer youth basketball.

A Globe investigation of the sneaker industry's influence on youth basketball in New England found that Gassnola has handed cash to members of his Adidas-sponsored summer travel teams for expenses unrelated to basketball. Several parents of elite players said the Springfield-based recruiter offered them free airfare or Adidas merchandise while pursuing their sons, and another parent said he interpreted Gassnola's sales pitch to mean the recruiter would provide his son improper financial aid. NCAA rules bar amateur players from receiving anything but ``actual and necessary travel, room and board, and apparel and equipment for competition and practice."

The Globe also witnessed Gassnola drive his teenage players in several states, even though his Massachusetts driver's license has been revoked or suspended 24 times and was not valid from 1993 until last month.

It seems like there's a movement afoot to clean up youth basketball, with the first step being exposing what's really going on. Then again, did Hoop Dreams (one of my favorite two or three films of all time) generate any reforms?


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