Athletes should have say with shoes

By Adam Kotlarczyk

It’s gotta be the shoes.

Jerry Nichols, a senior basketball player at Arkansas State University, may not get to play his senior year. Why? It’s the shoes.

Last year, his team wore Nike shoes. But the school’s contract with Nike expired, and ASU signed one with Adidas. The school is now required to put Adidas shoes on its athletes, including football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and track teams, along with several other sports.

So what – who cares which company pampers a college athlete with free shoes?

It’s just this: two years ago, while a junior at Walters State Community College, Nichols tore up his knee. Bad. A torn ACL. He’s already had two surgeries on it, including one at the end of last season. The shoes he was wearing at the time? You guessed it: Adidas.

This isn’t to say Adidas shoes cause knee injuries, or that they put an athlete at any more or less risk than any other athletic shoe. There’s no reason to doubt the words of Adidas spokesman Terrell Clark, who told, “We’ve been producing quality equipment for years.”

But anyone who’s been hurt playing sports can understand Nichols’ reluctance.

At first, it was no big deal. Nichols simply put a piece of black tape over the Nike logo on his basketball shoes. He wasn’t pumping another company’s product when he practiced last weekend. If no one had said anything, you wouldn’t even be reading about this.

But Arkansas State athletic director Dean Lee gave Nichols an ultimatum: He had to wear Adidas shoes or sit out. So far, Nichols has elected to sit.

For the moment, let’s take Nichols for his word and assume this isn’t a play for a future contract with Nike or Reebok when he graduates and, probably, tries to go pro. Presumably, the exposure from playing – the 6’6″ guard averaged just 9.6 points but shot 41.8 percent from three point range last season – would be more valuable to him than risking it for a potential shoe contract. Let’s trust he genuinely feels his health is in jeopardy.

A student athlete shouldn’t be put in a situation where he feels his health is at risk, no matter how misguided or misinformed that feeling is. No amount of money or free merchandise is worth that.

Representatives from Adidas and ASU have met with Nichols. Their decision will have some bearing here at NIU: as reported in the Northern Star yesterday, NIU recently inked a four-year contract with Adidas (you might notice the logo in the backdrops of press conferences). To what degree do we want corporate marketing strategies dictating how our athletes feel about health and safety?

While it’s possible to appreciate the position of Adidas – that they’re paying for a certain amount of exposure and should be entitled to it – exceptions should be made for student athletes who have already suffered terrible injuries. Call it a medical exemption.

It’s not much different than the exception made in the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 for the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team, whose Nike-contracted members pinned US flags over the Reebok logos on their warm-ups during the gold medal ceremony.

Forward Marcus Ardison, Nichols’ teammate, agrees. He told the Jonesboro Sun, “I don’t think [Nichols] is asking for much. He works hard every day and his knee is constantly swollen. He gets treatment every day. He gives his heart for the team and I don’t feel like he is asking for much. He’s got screws in his knees. If he wants to wear Nikes and tape them up, I feel that’s what we should let him do.”

College athletes don’t see a dime from corporate contracts with universities. If Nichols, or any NIU athlete who may someday feel the same, doesn’t feel safe in his or her free shoes, let him or her wear something else.

Columns reflect the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Northern Star staff.