Nike has found itself on the receiving end of a social media backlash after launching legal proceedings against US Rio Olympic hopeful, Boris Berian, blocking the track and field athlete from signing with its rival New Balance.
The sportswear giant sued Berian in May claiming that the 23 year-old runner breached the terms of a sponsorship agreement, which expired at the end of 2015, after he attempted to sign a deal with New Balance earlier this year.
Berian’s agent Hawi Keflezighi has now launched a social media and crowdfunding campaign to help fight the lawsuit, resulting in huge waves of support across social media with the #FreeBoris hashtag.
— Nick Symmonds (@NickSymmonds) June 21, 2016
Copped some sweet kicks for the summer mileage @borisgump800@Nike#FreeBorispic.twitter.com/uP2hJDz97j — Matt Montgomery (@mattmonty95) June 6, 2016
— Josiah Hanks (@jo_thesiah) June 22, 2016
@Nike they can't believe what you are doing to Boris #FreeBoris — Striker (@Striker_1994) June 22, 2016
The #FreeBoris decision has shown us that not all sponsorship deals are equal and not all sponsors are equally ethical. Proud of my sponsor.
— Patrick Rizzo (@RunPRizzo) June 9, 2016
The world indoor 800-meter champion is currently without a footwear sponsor and remains an attractive prospect for New Balance which has made a major push into the running footwear market in recent years.
Nike had a short-term contract with Berian which lapsed on 31 December 2015, however the company is understood to have had a clause in the agreement which gave it the right to match rival offers for 180 days after the expiration date. Nike claims it matched a lucrative deal from New Balance in January, but that its offer wasn’t honored.
Nike asserts that Berian wearing New Balance would cause “irreparable harm to Nike” given that the US Olympic team will be wearing Nike apparel in competition.
Berian’s lawyers argue that Nike did not technically match the New Balance’s sponsorship offer because its proposed bid included a number of financial clauses including steep “reductions” on payments when athletes fail to make certain rankings or show up to press conferences or competitions, even if they’re injured.
Nike's claims that such stipulations were industry standard were quickly discredited by New Balance as well as affidavits of support from runner Nick Symmonds, Jesse Williams, the director of sports marketing at Brooks, and Oiselle Running’s chief executive Sally Bergesen.
The US Olympic team’s deal with Nike means it will be wearing Nike apparel anyway however Berian has been training New Balance footwear all year and his lawyers insist that he should not be made to change such an integral piece of equipment so close to the 28 June trials.
“He’s been running and training in New Balance shoes all season long so to force him to wear some other brand at this point would be incredibly unfair,” Keflezighi said.
He added: “For an elite world class athlete where half a second makes a difference between whether you break an American record or not, where half a second makes a difference on whether you make an Olympic team or not, we hope the court understands this strong preference that he likes the shoes and the way they perform on his feet.”
While Nike’s brand image is unlikely to be harmed by US athletes wearing New Balance sneakers the sportswear giant’s actions send a message of dominance to its rivals and may dissuade other athletes from partnering with rival brands.