Nick Symmonds v. Nike/USATF: Of sponsorship and sport

Champion runner Nick Symmonds is bounced from US Championships - not for drugs, but his refusal to wear Nike brand


WASHINGTON, Aug. 11, 2015 — Nick Symmonds, the 800-meter U.S. national champion, qualified for the world track and field championships in Beijing on Aug. 22, but he did not make the team.

Symmonds was excluded not because of injury, failed drug tests or personal misconduct. Instead, he was bounced over USATF’s policy requiring athletes to wear Nike gear at all “official” functions.

USATF Conditions Letter
USATF Conditions Letter – click to enlarge

Nike is the official sponsor of the USA Track and Field (USATF), and in the letter congratulating Symmonds on his selection for the world championships, he was also told to pack only Nike gear.

Symmonds, who is sponsored by Brooks Running, refused to sign a terms and conditions agreement that USATF requires for athletes to be part of the team. He said he would not sign because the document requires athletes to wear only Nike gear and the document is “vague and overreaching.”

Symmonds says the problem is that USATF does not define what a team event is. In an email to, Symmonds wrote:

“The heart of the matter is that USATF never bothers to define what an ‘official’ team event is. This poorly worded, ambiguously written document, coupled with the letter that I was sent telling me to ‘pack ONLY Team USA, Nike or non-branded apparel’ leads me to believe that USATF thinks every minute from the moment I leave my home is an official Team USA event.”

Symmonds says it also violates his contract with Brooks. Symmonds agreed to wear Team USA gear during competition and official news conferences and at any awards ceremony, but said he should be allowed to wear Brooks apparel during other events.

Brooks Running Statement of Support – Click to Enlarge

Symmonds has previously clashed with USATF officials over branded apparel and individual athletic sponsorships. He says that during the 2014 world indoor championships, USATF officials told him to remove his Brooks apparel. Symmonds says he was drinking coffee at a hotel at the time.

USATF issued a statement on its website, saying it respects Symmonds’ decision but that the statement of conditions is required to participate on the USATF team. It further said, “athletes and agents are familiar with the provisions of the document, which include requirements pertaining to athlete conduct as goodwill ambassadors for the United States, proper handling of the American flag, wearing the designated Team uniform at official Team functions, attendance at official Team practices, meetings and other events, commitment to train and report fit to compete, and following doping rules.”

According to ESPN, USATF receives approximately $28 million a year from Nike in exchange for agreeing that Nike will be the sole provider of Team USA gear.

Symmonds posted a response to the situation from Brooks on his Facebook page, which he says exemplifies the reason he signed with the company:

Symmonds says he wants to work with the USATF to clarify athletes’ obligations and create a better statement of conditions. He posted on Facebook:

Symmonds response to USATF - Click to enlarge
Symmonds response to USATF – Click to enlarge

Also this week, Symmonds wrote a blog on the Huffington Post site noting that elite runners receive only 8 percent of USATF revenue, while elite athletes in other major sports receive between 25 and 50 percent. USATF athletes are not unionized and act as independent consultants, which is a significantly different system than what is found in most other sports.

In the piece, Symmonds drew on a study by Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist. Zimbalist estimated that USATF will share about 8.06 percent of $42.92 million in revenue in 2015 with athletes.

USATF disputes that finding, saying it will share approximately 50 percent of its $30 million revenue this year with athletes. It specifically cited prize money, training, travel/coaching stipends, health insurance and television production costs.

New rumors suggest Symmonds is now meeting with an attorney over the situation and that he is moving forward and training for the 2016 Olympics.

The USATF says there can be no changes to the statement of conditions until the annual convention in December.

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Lisa M. Ruth
Lisa M. Ruth is Editor-in-Chief of CDN. In addition to her editing and leadership duties, she also writes on international events, intelligence, and other topics. She has worked with CDN as a journalist since 2009. Lisa is also President of CTC International Group, Inc., a research and analysis firm in South Florida, providing actionable intelligence to decisionmakers. She started her career at the CIA, where she won several distinguished awards for her service. She holds an MA in international relations from the University of Virginia, and a BA in international relations from George Mason University. She also serves as Chairman of the Board of Horses Healing Hearts, and is involved with several other charitable organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and AYSO.