No one thought that 10 of the world's most talented and best-paid basketball players could be gathered under one umbrella without some turmoil. But the infighting between agents and USA Basketball, the governing body of the sport, over endorsements and apparel-licensing agreements has gone beyond anyone's worst-case scenario.
As of Sunday, ProServ's David Falk, whose clients include U.S. Olympians Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and John Stockton, had not officially responded to a March 5 letter from Dave Gavitt, the president of USA Basketball, requesting that Falk comply with its licensing rules by March 12 or ask his clients to resign from the team. Last Friday, Falk told USA Today from London that he planned to sit down with Gavitt and work the whole thing out.
Though agents for other players have had difficulties with licensing and sponsorship agreements, compromises have been made with USA Basketball and continue to be made. For example, Schick, as an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic basketball team, is entitled to use a group photo of the team for endorsement purposes. But since Charles Barkley has a contract with a competing company, Gillette, his representatives asked for modifications in the Schick advertisement to make it seem more an endorsement for the team and less one for Schick.
USA Basketball officials accuse Falk of refusing to compromise on sponsorship issues. There is also a battle going on between USA Basketball and Nike, whose Olympic clients include Jordan, Stockton, Barkley, David Robinson, Chris Mullin and Scottie Pippen. The positions of USA Basketball and the NBA can be considered one and the same since the former is dominated by such NBA types as Russ Granik, the deputy commissioner, and Celtics CEO Gavitt.
At the heart of the dispute is an agreement between the players and the NBA that was signed in 1986. At that time the NBA Players Association gave NBA Properties the rights to market certain products (caricature T-shirts, posters, trading cards, etc.) on behalf of the players. In the case of the Olympics, NBA Properties is acting as the agent for USA Basketball. Falk, however, contends that the marketing rights never belonged to the Players Association in the first place. The issue boiled up before last month's All-Star Game when Jordan-Falk-Nike insisted that Jordan's individual apparel contract with Nike overrode any agreement between the Players Association and the league; consequently, Jordan's likeness did not appear on the caricature T-shirt of the All-Stars. The same scenario will hold in Barcelona: There will be a T-shirt with caricatures of all members of the U.S. team except Jordan. Further, USA Basketball and the NBA have decided to give Nike the victory in the apparel battle—no Olympic sweatshirt, noncaricature T-shirt or any other kind of clothing will include the image of a Nike athlete.
Nike was presumably within its rights to demand that its athletes not wear any apparel except its own, even in such special circumstances as the Olympics; that might be small-minded, but it is legal. And there are legitimate business principles involved in Falk's refusal to compromise; Jordan receives a lot of money from certain companies to endorse their products, and he should not be put into a position in which he appears to be endorsing competing products.
But at some point all the quibbling about products and T-shirts and who can appear on what begins to look selfish and meanspirited.
According to one theory, the Falk-Nike-Jordan team is making matters difficult because Jordan doesn't want to play on the Olympic team. Not so. Whatever his initial doubts, Jordan hat-come to realize that he has much more to gain by being in Barcelona than by feathering a five-iron at Pebble Beach.
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