Friday, July 1, 2016
Today a number of athletes will compete in various track & field events in the Olympic Trials.
One of those events is the qualifying round of the 800m, and one of the 800m runners, Boris Berian, was recently caught in a legal dispute with his old shoe sponsor (Nike) because of his attempt to sign with a new shoe sponsor (New Balance). The story of the dispute even made The Wall Street Journal.
As I understand the timeline from the reporting and legal filings:
- After the 2012 season, Boris dropped out of his division II college (Adams State) to pursue pro-running.
- For a couple of years, Boris struggled to find world class success, and he worked at McDonald's.
- Boris didn't have a real breakthrough until mid-2015, when he ran the fastest time for an American that year.
- On June 17, 2015, shortly after his breakthrough race, Boris signed a short-term exclusive sponsorship deal with Nike (chosen from among many suitors).
- On December 31, 2015, the Nike-Boris contract expired, though the contract gave Nike the right to match any competitor's bona fide offer within 180 days of 12/31/15.
- On January 20, 2016, Boris' agent notified Nike than New Balance had made Boris a 3 year, $375,000 offer ($125,000 per year guaranteed).
- Nike's response to New Balance offer is disputed and at the center of a breach of contract lawsuit that Nike filed on April 29.
- Nike supposedly served Boris with notice of the lawsuit at a track meet.
- In short, Boris claimed that New Balance's $375,000 offer was guaranteed, while Nike's "match" was full of potential reductions. Nike claims that the contract they sent was simply a standard form. Nike claimed that guaranteed money is unusual in track contracts and Boris' agent had not shown proof of the lack of reductions in New Balance's offer, and that if the lack of reductions was proven, Nike would have matched those terms within the deadline.
- On June 7, a judge granted Nike's TRO, restraining Boris from competing in non-Nike gear until June 21.
- On June 22, a judge declined to extend the TRO and stated that he would rule on June 29.
- On June 23, Nike dropped its lawsuit (without prejudice), claiming that they wanted to "eliminate this distraction for Boris" given the upcoming Olympic Trials.
- On June 30, Boris Berian signed with New Balance.
In the fall of 2014, Robert Bird (UConn) and David Orozco (Florida State) published a nice short article in the MIT Sloan Management Review entitled Finding the Right Corporate Legal Strategy. This has been a key article in the growing Law & Strategy area. The article notes five main legal strategies; "The five, in order of least to greatest strategic impact, are: (1) avoidance, (2) compliance, (3) prevention, (4) value and (5) transformation."
This Nike v. Boris Berian situation, in my opinion, is an interesting example of the use of corporate legal strategy. In particular, Nike appears to be using litigation as a move for firm-wide value (#4 on the Bird & Orozco list).
Why did Nike sue? In my opinion, Nike likely sued not just because they believed Boris breached the contract, but also to send a message to its other athletes that Nike "plays hardball." This message may have been especially important given Kara Goucher's doping allegation against the Nike Oregon Project and its coach; a number of prized Nike athletes may have been watching Boris' situation and may have defected (right before the Olympics!) if Boris was treated with a light touch. Also, especially given that Boris claimed that he would rather sit out that run for Nike, perhaps Nike was simply trying to distract what could soon be a potential star for its competitor New Balance. While Nike has a number of track athletes with the star power of Boris, New Balance has a shallow bench of star track athletes and a good bit would ride on Boris' performance for NB. If Boris medals, especially with his McDonald's to track star story, that could be a huge deal for New Balance. Nike, on the other hand, has a absurd number of track stars with good stories and a high likelihood of medaling.
Why did Nike drop its lawsuit? I think the press was getting worse for Nike than Nike originally imagined. Also, perhaps the case was not resolving as quickly as Nike had guessed, and if Nike pursued the lawsuit into the Olympic Trials, the negative coverage may have exploded. That said, Nike must have known the coverage was going to be negative, so I imagine that factored into their original calculation, to some degree. Their lawyers might have gotten the impression that the judge was not going to rule in their favor when he decided against extending the TRO, so maybe Nike decided to try to win back some fans by dropping the lawsuit voluntarily. I agree with this author, eliminating the distraction for Boris was likely not Nike's main motivation, if so, they would have not sued him during the Olympic Trials build-up. As any runner knows, the months before a meet are much more important than the week before (at least as a physical matter). More likely, and perhaps unanticipated at the filing of the lawsuit, 19-year old Donavan Brazier of Texas A&M announced that he was turning pro just a few days before Nike dropped its lawsuit. Brazier, who had recently won the NCAA championships in the 800m in record time, was probably even a bigger signing target for Nike than Boris. By dropping the lawsuit, Nike may have been able to come off as altruistic to Brazier (saying something like - we had legal grounds to pursue the Boris lawsuit, but we want to do what is best for our current and former athletes). A few days after Nike dropped the lawsuit, Brazier signed with Nike. In addition, around the same time, Nike also signed another 800m star, Clayton Murphy. Both Braizer and Murphy were underclassmen and it was uncertain, until recently, whether they would turn pro. Not only did dropping the lawsuit against Boris likely help Nike in pursuing these two young athletes, but the recent strength of these athletes in the 800m made it possible that Boris would not even make the team, much less medal in Rio.
Personally, I think Boris is going to race well today (we will know in a few hours) and over the next few days, but maybe the stress of the legal battle took a toll. Brazier and Murphy and the entire field will both be tough, but the field will be a bit more open given that two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds scratched from the 800m Olympic Trials field with an injured ankle. Boris has the best qualifying time (1:43:34 v. 1:43:55), but Brazier has the best time this season (1:43:55 v. 1:44.20). Should be exciting to watch and now you know the legal background.
Finally, perhaps of interest to some readers, Boris Berian was using crowdfunding to pay for his legal defense. Boris even got this shout-out from Malcolm Gladwell on Twitter: "Nike earned 30 billion in 2015. Berian was flipping burgers at McDonalds two years ago. Isn't one bully in American public life enough?"
Update #1: In one of the biggest surprises of the Trials, Donavan Brazier was knocked out in the first round of the 800m, running roughly 5 big seconds slower than he did in the NCAA Championships. Boris Berian won his heat. Nike was diversified with Clayton Murphy who won his heat, and Nike also had four others who qualified for the next round in the 800.
Update #2: Boris Berian led his 800m semi-final from start to finish. Looked strong. Clayton Murphy won the second semi-final race, in a bit slower race, but he also looked strong. Finals are Monday.
Update #3: In the finals, Boris Berian grabbed the lead around 400m and held on until the final 10m or so. He placed second to Clayton Murphy (Nike) who out-kicked him. Charles Jock (Nike OTC) finished third. Those top three finishers will represent the US in Rio in the 800m.
Update #4: After getting 4th in one of his heats and needing to qualify on time rather than automatically, Clayton Murphy won the U.S.A.'s first medal in the 800m in 24 years. Murphy grabbed third place over the last 50m, and Boris Berian faded to 8th after going out fast. Berian looked strong in his heats, qualifying automatically for the final, but perhaps he did not have the necessary endurance. Clayton Murphy's specialty was the 1500m prior to the Olympics, so he likely had a stronger base. Looks like Nike hedged well and got quite the payoff from signing Murphy. All of that said, Dave Wottle (former Dean of Admissions at my alma mater, Rhodes College) still ran the most exciting 800m race ever. Watch Dave Wottle come from last place to win gold in the 1972 Olympics.