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Can Olympic Hopeful Boris Berian Stick It to Nike?

AP Images
AP Images

When Boris Berian lines up to run the 800-meter event at tonight’s U.S. Olympic trials, he’ll be decked out in New Balance gear. This may seem insignificant to the casual viewer, but it’s the cause of major controversy in the track world: As recently as last week, Nike was suing Berian, essentially for the right to sponsor him. Nike filed the lawsuit in April, putting Berian’s Olympic status in jeopardy and sparking a massive debate about the way professional track contracts are structured. Although Nike dropped the case last Thursday, allowing Berian to sign with New Balance, Nike v. Berian may well prove to be a watershed moment for athletes’ rights. It will certainly make the trials more compelling.

This case was tailor-made for David and Goliath metaphors: The plaintiff was a $26 billion corporation, easily the richest brand in sports, while the defendant was less than two years removed from flipping burgers at McDonalds for $8 an hour. Berian’s rags-to-riches tale captivated the track world last year, when the 22-year-old college dropout rose from obscurity to run a U.S.-leading time of 1:43.84 at the New York Adidas Grand Prix, finishing second to world-record holder David Rudisha. Nike quickly signed him for the remainder of 2015, and despite some missteps — most notably his failure to reach the 800-meter final at the U.S. championships last June — Berian was well-positioned for the future with a sought-after contract.

When Berian’s deal expired at the end of 2015, New Balance extended him a fully guaranteed three-year, $375,000 deal, an offer he found appealing. The only problem: Nike had the right to match, which it claims to have done. But according to Berian and his agent, Merhawi Keflezighi, Nike’s resulting counteroffer was laden with reduction clauses, as is the company’s wont. For example, Nike reserved the right to reduce Berian’s compensation by a whopping 20 percent if “Mr. Berian is not ranked in the top 10 worldwide for the 800 meter event.” This set off a back-and-forth that effectively put Berian in sponsorship limbo. When Berian capped a strong winter campaign with a gold medal at the World Indoor Championships in March, he revealed the shocking news that he was competing without a shoe contract. How could a world indoor champion not have a sponsor?

In May, we found out:

Legal issues aside, Nike’s decision to sue Berian was bad optics: Here was a corporate behemoth taking an up-and-coming athlete to court for wearing a different brand of shoes. Berian had to crowdfund his legal defense, and the response from fans was overwhelming: #FreeBoris.

Nike was never going to win this PR battle, which is why some have speculated the company ultimately dropped the lawsuit before the Olympics — the one time every four years that casual sports fans pay attention to track. Moreover, the swoosh already had a well-earned reputation as a bully in the world of pro track and field, and Berian’s origin story made him a perfect folk hero.

Despite dropping the case against Berian, Nike still wields more power than ever. In 2014, USA Track & Field and Nike inked a gargantuan sponsorship agreement through 2040, estimated to be worth $500 million. If you tune in to the trials, which start tonight and go through July 10, you’ll see swooshes everywhere, from the Hayward Field signage to most athletes’ shoes. But you won’t find any on Berian, and his effort to ensure that is worth appreciating.

Berian went from fry cook to world-class runner to labor-rights hero. He’s one of the feel-good stories of the track world. After surviving a legal battle with Nike, qualifying for the Olympics should be a piece of cake.