SBJ/October 13 - 19, 2003/Labor Agents

NFLPA tells Nike to back off

Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.

Two letters that Nike Inc. sent to hundreds of NFL players that it has under contract, telling them to wear Nike-branded garments under their jerseys but not Reebok caps on the sidelines, have prompted an angry missive from players union chief Gene Upshaw.

The letter is the latest salvo in an escalating dispute between Nike, which has shoe and apparel deals with at least half of the league's 1,800 players, and the NFL Players Association and NFL, which have a lucrative, exclusive apparel licensing deal with Reebok.

Nike has threatened players in the past with breach of contract for wearing Reebok hats on the sidelines, but the NFLPA tried to resolve the issue by making the caps part of the official uniform. Despite that, Nike sent the letters to players again this year, warning them that wearing Reebok caps on the sidelines, at press conferences or during interviews "would be a violation of your Nike football contract."

Reebok CEO Paul Fireman said, "Nike is just trying to cause trouble in this one particular issue. It's sour grapes that they didn't get the [NFL apparel] contract." Fireman added, however, that the dispute is between the NFLPA and Nike, and not Reebok.

Upshaw, in his letter to players last week, said, "It is inappropriate and unacceptable for Nike to threaten any player for wearing any part of his official game uniform on the sidelines.

"You can wear any approved apparel as part of your game uniform displaying an official manufacturer's logo [e.g. Riddell, Reebok, NFL Equipment, etc.] without interference by Nike, and the NFLPA is prepared to defend your right to do so."

A Nike spokesman would not comment on whether the company agreed that the caps were part of the official NFL uniform, but continued to insist that Nike had purview over the headwear worn by its contracted NFL players.

"We don't consider [the letters] a threat," said Nike spokesman Rodney Knox. "It was a reminder to our athletes about the contents of their contracts, which essentially say they have an exclusive deal to wear Nike headgear. So we were just asking them to comply."

Upshaw could not be reached for comment last week. But Doug Allen, assistant executive director of the NFLPA, said that team caps manufactured by Reebok were made a part of the official NFL player uniform prior to last season.

"It is inappropriate for Nike to interject itself and interfere with an area that has been dealt with in an agreement between the NFL and NFLPA," Allen said. "I don't think we have any dispute. They are interjecting themselves into an area where they have no jurisdiction and an area they don't belong and we are just reminding the players of that."

Nike seemed to back down on its request that its players wear Nike "pro compression gear" under their uniforms.

In addition to the cap letter, Nike also had sent letters to its NFL player endorsers this summer advising them to wear the performance apparel, which is designed to go under the NFL team uniform. Nike also sent players the product emblazoned with their NFL team colors and the Nike logo.

Even though the performance wear is worn under the jerseys, it may become visible to the press and the public if a player removes his jersey while being interviewed in a locker room or if it is removed if he is injured in a game. Players could actually be fined if they are found wearing the Nike-branded performance wear.

On the performance-wear issue, Upshaw wrote, "Nike should not have advised players to do this and they have admitted their mistake to our staff. Because Nike is not an apparel licensee of the NFL [or Players Inc.], players are not permitted to wear apparel during games that is identifiable as manufactured by Nike [either because the apparel displays the Nike swoosh and/or because it has a distinctive and identifiable design]."

Knox acknowledged Nike had made a mistake in telling players to wear the performance wear, although he said he did not know if Nike had sent letters to its endorsers telling them not to wear it.

NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said the NFL was aware of the Upshaw letter to players and was supportive of it.

Money is at the core of the dispute. Nike deals with NFL players range in value from six figures a year for the very top stars to merchandise only. But all NFL players can benefit from licensed sales of NFL apparel by Reebok, as Upshaw noted in his letter to players last week.

"Whether you are a Nike-contract player or not, we strongly encourage you to wear your team's cap on the sidelines during games," Upshaw said. "If more players wear team caps, more consumers will see them on TV and buy them in stores. Nike can not manufacture or sell team-logoed hats and therefore is not competing with Reebok for sales of this licensed product. Every team-logoed cap sold adds revenue to the salary cap."

One informed source said some players under contract to Nike were not wearing the caps for fear of losing their individual Nike deals, but it was not clear how many players were affected by the Nike letter.

Reebok CEO Fireman said he did not know how many players were not wearing the caps, but he was "not concerned about it." Reebok has supplied players with caps without the Reebok vector on it, Fireman noted.

He noted that the vast majority of NFL players make far more on their NFL contracts than on any endorsement deal with Nike. "The irony of it is the less they support the sales of the products, [the more] they are reducing the salary cap," he said.

Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this story.

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