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Reductions ad Absurdum and Boris Berian: The Week That Was

Boris Berian finds himself looking for contract lawyers, but the real problem is exploitation.

Track and Field: USA Indoor Championships Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Contracts are everywhere. We sign them when we take a new job, buy a house, or buy a ticket to a baseball game. Normally this process is unglamorous: You take out your BIC pen, sign your name--hopefully in a way that looks similar to how you have signed it elsewhere before--and go about your life. In one arena, though, the simple, effortless, and incredibly brief process of signing a contract takes on a disproportionate amount of attention. That arena, of course is professional sports.

It's long overplayed commentary that The Decision marked the Platonic Ideal in the contract-signing-as-spectacle trend in major professional sports. For the uninitiated, The Decision was the stunning, self-aggrandizing hoopla orchestrated by LeBron James in which he, after nearly an hour of beating around the bush, took his talents to South Beach--that's Miami, just so you know--all while sporting a shirt that would have worked just as well aesthetically as a table cloth. This focus on contract-signing and publicity of terms has largely been absent from track and field. We know Bolt makes a figurative shit-ton, and that Andre de Grasse bought a Honda Accord with his ample earnings, but because these contracts are signed with entities like Nike, Puma, and RunGum the terms aren't of much interest. Whether he's with Nike or Brooks or RunGum, or Paris Hilton, Nick Symmonds is still going to run the 800m. A contract in track and field doesn't mean all that much in the grand scheme of the sport because it doesn't disrupt any established balance of power. That is, until now.

I'll excuse you for not being intimate with the details that surround the New Balance v. Nike feud that has taken form around Boris Berian. Despite being a Nike athlete, Berian has never seemed too keen on wearing Nike apparel in races. In his wire-to-wire victory at USATF indoors, he wore a black New Balance kit with, others suggest, New Balance spikes. That seemed odd considering that Berian had just signed a contract with Nike the previous June. However, Berian's team assured us that that contract expired at the end of 2015. No reason to worry.

Then, on May 20th, at the Hoka One One Classic, Berian was served by Nike with a breach of contract suit and followed that on June 1st with a cease and desist order from running in New Balance gear.

This is where the dispute gets a tad technical. In January, Berian's contract ran out with Nike and New Balance offered him a $375,000 contract for three years. Nike had a right to match his contract, and they did. Only, they didn't, or at least not really.

It turns out contacts in track and field aren't quite the same as those in their more popular rivals. A typical basketball contract, for example, will specify a guaranteed base salary upon which bonuses--making the All-Star team, winning MVP, playing a certain number of games--can be added. Not so in track. The base salary and bonuses are there, but there's also this other, looming spectre--reductions. Say Berian signed a deal for $125,000 in 2017 but gets injured in some random January indoor meet. With reductions, he could lose money for getting injured and not reaching certain benchmarks as a result.

Apparently these are standard operating procedure in running contracts, but they were not included in New Balance's offer to Berian, at least not explicitly. So, when Nike went to match that offer, they assumed reductions were hidden there, so added some of their own. So, the matching offer Berian received from Nike was the same as he received from NB just with the added potential of reductions. In other words, it wasn't a match. Matches are the same, or even better in the contract world, than the deals they strive to match. Because of reductions, Berian argues, Nike didn't match. They undershot New Balance.

Before we move on, let's dwell for a minute on the morality of reductions and why they exist in track and field but not elsewhere. Dealing with the second topic first, this highlights the value players' unions for protecting athletes from things like this. Reductions skew the risk-reward structure such that the athlete assumes all the risk in the deal. Sure, they'll make money if they stay young, keep performing well, and a flush of talent doesn't appear in their event. But, if any of those don't work out, the shoe, apparel, or chewing gum company walks off clean while the athlete is stuck applying to his former job flipping burgers. Ruben Amaro, Jr. sure wishes he could have written some reductions into the Ryan Howard extension, but he couldn't because Ryan Howard has a union and a collectively bargained set of rules protecting him from such craven exploitation and imbalance of power. Such a system isn't apparently practical in track where the potential field of owners (sponsors) is nearly infinite. Who can the athletes and their fictional union collectively bargain with? Regarding the morality of these provisions: They're exploitation of workers laid bare.

Another contention Nike makes in their suit against Berian is that him racing in New Balance, particularly at the Olympic Trials, would do "irreparable harm" to Nike's brand. This is laughable. If an 800m runner who no one heard of until a little over a year ago not wearing your brand and breaching your contract will do irreparable harm to your image, let's just say, you have bigger problems than Boris Berian. Does the kid buying the new Lebrun's or a swoosh headband care at all whether Boris Effing Berian wore a Nike singlet in the Diamond League Monaco race? No. He's never even heard of the Diamond League, or Monaco, or Boris Berian.

Even if we restrict the scope of "irreparable harm" to the running division of the Nike brand, this makes no sense. Ask the average high school runner to name a professional track and field athlete and he or she will likely struggle to name anyone other than Pre. No one watches these meets--the page view statistics on this blog attest to that--and the people who do couldn't give a flying you-know-what what spikes Boris Berian is wearing. In aggregate, a brand's sponsored athletes might move the needle a bit in sales due to marketing campaigns, but each athlete, on his own, is likely totally expendable, hence, reductions.

So, the week that was. That's what started this whole thing as I recall. The week that was was silly. This Berian sponsorship stuff captures that perfectly. It doesn't matter. $375,000 outlaid over three years is nothing to Nike or New Balance or even Hoka, probably. I find it hard to imagine that Berian would bring that much revenue into whatever brand he dons in races. So, just let the guy leave, Nike. 14 people care. You could probably construct a compelling model showing that Nike will lose sales over this. As we know with our jobs, contracts don't mean a whole hell of a lot. We find a better job, we take it, contract or no. That's what Berian seems to have done with New Balance and Nike should just let him go and move on.