Essay: Is Nike using students for free marketing of their swoosh?

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Update November 30, 2019- The case of (Spielman v IMG College LLC, et al 17-cv-00612) might have fizzled in the courts, but Spielman won in the end. The NCAA has approved a plan to allow players to profit from marketing that uses their likeness. This comes after the State of California passed a similar law. This is a seismic shift in college sports.

June 16, 2018- In less than a week, the Ohio State University Golf Club has suddenly started to sell Ping, Callaway, and other brands of shirt, hats, pants, etc. with the OSUGC logo on it. The shop has also seems to have removed the Nike apparel. However, they still have no UnderArmour or Adidas gear available, which are the two big competitors to Nike Golf.

June 10, 2018- by Steven E. Greer, MD

As an undergrad and medical school graduate of The Ohio State University, I have conflicting views of my alma mater. On one hand, I have the usual pride typical of alumni. The sports program is excelling and the medical center is getting better. On the other hand, I have pure disgust for the corruption that has metastasized from the sports program into other arenas.

When I moved back to Ohio in 2016, I attended the Ohio State v Michigan game in the Fall. I was no longer a naïve student. I was a veteran enlightened Wall Street analyst, reporter, doctor, and CEO, with a special hobby of federal litigation. I spotted things that most people in the stands would not have seen.

During the halftime activities, students in the North and South stands were told to hold up cardboard squares under their seats. When done in unison, giant images of the Nike swoosh logo appeared. I immediately felt betrayed. I was duped into participating in a sleazy Nike and IMG marketing campaign. No one in the stands were paid for this, of course, but the university and coaches were taking in millions.

This did not sit well with me. I sent a complaint letter to Gene Smith, the athletic director who earns more than $2 Million, and the university president, Michael Drake, MD. I received no response.

Meanwhile, the Ohio State sports programs were excelling and winning championships. Kyle Snyder won the Olympic gold medal in heavyweight wrestling. Tennis, women’s golf, track, and many other programs became national champs, along with the football and basketball teams competing at the highest levels. So, I once again had conflicted feelings. I like to see Ohio State win. Should I ignore the Big Sneaker corruption?

About a year after that OSU-Michigan game, news broke that the Department of Justice and FBI were conducting sting operations on NCAA basketball coaches were taking kickbacks and bribes from Nike and other sneaker companies. Rick Pitino of Louisville was made to be the sacrificial lamb and fired, despite a myriad of coaches who could have gone down as well. By many accounts, the entire NCAA sports complex has become thoroughly corrupted by TV and Big Sneaker money.

Then, earlier this year, I joined the Ohio State University Golf Club (OSUGC). Like most pro shops, clothing and merchandise is sold at a 20% discount to retail in order to encourage members to buy their goods there. I started to buy numerous pants, shirts, and hats, all with the OSUGC logo on them. But last week, I had one of those awakening moments and said to myself, “Wait a second. I have become a walking Nike advertisement and I despise Nike.” All of the garments were Nike.

I flashed back to the OSU-Michigan game when I was used by Nike then too. I became outraged.

Through FOIA, I obtained some of the contracts that Ohio State has with Nike (Contract 1 Contract 2 Contract 3). They give broad rights to Nike to sell their goods in Ohio State venues in exchange for a few million dollars. I did not obtain the individual sneaker contracts that pay the coaches millions.

However, I could not find any contract that forced the golf club to sell only Nike shirts or exclude Under Armour and Adidas. I asked the GM of OSUGC, Marc Lucas, to explain why I cannot order clothing and shoes that compete with Nike. He replied:

Dr. Greer,

While the Nike contracts technically do not prohibit OSU from selling other brands, it is our business strategy at the Golf Course to only sell apparel that has either the OSU Athletics logo or the Ohio State Golf Club logo. We do not sell apparel without logos like you might find at other retailers. Since we are unable to put the logos on apparel from Under Armour and Adidas, we do not sell those brands. Obviously, we don’t carry all potential brands manufactured and we are under no obligation to do so. Have a nice weekend,


After a quick overview of the contracts, they do not force OSU logo garments to be made by Nike. I admittedly have not spent hours scouring over the documents or hired a lawyer to do so. Moreover, the statement is untrue. The pro shop does indeed sell lesser known labels of shirts and shoes, but just not any of the Big Sneaker competition to Nike.

I started to smell the decaying carcass of a rat yet to be uncovered in some ventilation duct. Why is Mr. Lucas bending over backwards to help promote Nike? Is he receiving payments from Nike? Is he afraid that he would be fired by Gene Smith if he dared sell Under Armour?

As I started to dig deeper into this, I remembered that Ohio State football legend Chris Spielman had recently sued Ohio State, Nike, and IMG, accusing them of using his and other athletes’ likenesses on billboards, banners, etc. while not compensating them. The case was filed in July of 2017 (Spielman v IMG College LLC, et al 17-cv-00612). I spent $50 and pulled the actual briefs from the federal courts PACER site.

The Spielman complaint is a class action that now incorporates approximately 90 other schools. Ohio State had tried and failed to move the case to state court where they could have argued immunity as a state entity. Losing that motion to dismiss on jurisdiction, the judge recently ruled that the case will go to mediation per rules of Ohio Uniform Mediation Act. Secrecy agreements now prevail and details of the settlement by IMG and Nike will be confidential.

This settlement stage of the case has not been reported. It is significant. College athletes have tried for years to sue the colleges to be compensated when their images are used in video games, marketing materials, etc.

Meanwhile, the grievances I have are far bigger than that. The sleaze of the Big Sneaker marketing is now impacting millions of fans and alumni. In my case, I have been unwittingly turned into a walking Nike advertisement despite being someone ardently opposed to Nike and all of the corruption in college sports that it represents.

Stay tuned.

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