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Monday, August 10, 2015
Olympic Athlete Takes a Stand

American runner Nick Symmonds is taking a stand against the US Olympic machine, and like many athletes challenging the status quo, it may cost him dearly. Symmonds won the 800 meters at the US Trials, earning himself a spot on the USA World Championship Team which is a precursor to his third US Olympic team. However, before officially naming him to the team, USA Track & Field (USATF) required Symmonds sign a mandatory "statement of conditions" and, when he failed to do so in a timely fashion, replaced him on the roster.

At issue is the requirement that all athletes wear designated team uniforms at official functions--which means sporting Nike gear per the contract between USATF and Nike. USATF has a long term agreement with Nike through 2040 which provides significant funding to the organization. However, Symmonds is sponsored by Brooks Running, and has certain contractual obligations in his individual endorsement deal.

At question is the breadth of USATF's contract with Nike and how they choose to interpret and impose it on their athletes. Symmonds readily accedes that he will wear the official Nike gear in competition, but if, as reported, USATF is telling him not to even pack any Brooks gear for his travels, doesn't that extend the boundaries of the contract with Nike and violate Symmonds' rights as an endorser?

Like many Olympic athletes, Symmonds receives a huge percentage of his compensation NOT from salaries but from endorsement contracts. The value of those deals are predicated on visibility, including participation in the Olympics. If the USATF can quash that value by assuming exclusivity for themselves, what happens to other Olympic athletes and their endorsement value?

And, unlike professional sports leagues, it's not as if most Olympic athletes are represented by a labor union, negotiating rights and compensation with USATF in exchange for the requirement that they wear Nike apparel. This arrangement appears to be unilaterally imposed upon them, and may hamper their ability to protect and profit from their endorsement rights. Undoubtedly, it will be interesting to see how this situation unfolds, and whether Symmonds will represent his country in Brazil next summer.


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