Recently, Nike, USA Track and Field, and Olympian Nick Symmonds have gotten ample media play… but not because of the upcoming Track and Field World Championships in Beijing, China. Rather, they’re making headlines thanks to a dispute over sponsorship.

In short: Symmonds, the 2015 National Champion in the Men’s 800 Meters, is sponsored by running company Brooks Sports, while USATF is locked in to a long term deal with Nike. As part of that deal, USATF mandated that all track and field athletes competing in the Worlds for Team USA wear Nike-created/branded gear during all team functions in Beijing. Nothing unusual about that, right? However, the New York Times reported that USATF also mandated team gear at “other

[unspecified] team functions”… and asked that athletes bring “only Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel” with them on the plane to Beijing.

Symmonds balked at agreeing to this stipulation; as a result, USATF informed the two-time Olympian on Sunday, August 9th that he would be removed from the team.

For Symmonds, the issue is one of the USATF overstepping their bounds. As track and field athletes rely heavily on personal sponsorships to support themselves and their training, he feels that limitations should be placed on the USATF to enable athletes to partner with and benefit from relationships with partners. He is concerned about USATF expanding their “branded-only” periods/event roster. As noted on his website, “[Symmonds] understands firsthand how difficult it is for these athletes to receive individual sponsorships that help them pay for the necessary training and travel to follow their dreams. He’s determined to change the sport’s governing bodies’ marketing restrictions which only allow minimal advertising dollars to reach track athletes.”

The USATF’s argument is that their requests regarding Worlds aren’t unreasonable, especially since they apply specifically to that event (one of track and field’s marquee meets). Said USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer in a recent SportsBusiness Journal article, “USATF is a strong advocate for athletes to have as many sources of revenue as possible. But the standard for when our team uniform and our team products must be worn is well known, and it’s consistent with the rest of the industry within track and field, internationally and also in other sports.”

What do you think? Is USATF infringing on athletes’ rights by requiring them not to leave the house with apparel from their personal (non-Nike) sponsors in their suitcases, or are they within their rights to require maximum exposure for their biggest benefactor? Should this dispute have impacted whether or not Symmonds was able to keep his spot on the team, or would it have been more appropriate to simply fine him if he elected to wear Brooks apparel in Beijing?

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