Sports Law

When It Comes to Running Shoes, How Fast Is Too Fast?

Molly Woodford, MJLST Staffer

On October 12, 2019, Eliud Kipchoge made headlines for running a marathon in 1:59:41 in Vienna. A day later, Brigid Kosgei broke Paula Radcliffe’s long-standing women’s marathon world record by over a minute, recording a time of 2:14:04 at the Chicago Marathon. Nike sponsors both athletes. Kipchoge’s run does not count as an official world record for a number of reasons, including a rotating phalanx of pacemakers and a pace car, but he holds the official world record of 2:01:39 set at the Berlin Marathon in 2018. Two weeks before Kipchoge’s historic sub-two-hour run, Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder at 5000m and 10,000m, missed Kipchoge’s world record by a mere two seconds at the 2019 Berlin Marathon. Nike also sponsors Bekele. All of these record-setting athletes wore some version of the Nike VaporFly during their races.

This spate of record-setting performances has reinvigorated a debate in the running community about whether these shoes confer an unfair advantage to competitors who wear them and should, therefore, be banned. The first iteration of the Nike VaporFly, later dubbed the 4%, first appeared on the feet of elite athletes in early 2016, at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. The shoe became available to the public in July 2017, retailing at $250. Several studies (1, 2) have shown that, true to its name, the Nike VaporFly 4% makes wearers approximately 4% more efficient compared to other racing shoes (which make the wearers ~1.9% faster). Nike has since released an updated version, the Next%, which was worn by Kosgei in Chicago and Bekele in Berlin, as well as by Kipchoge’s entire rotating phalanx of pacers in his sub-2 attempt. Next%, now also available to the public for $250, is certainly intended to, and based on recent performances may actually, confer a benefit of more than 4% to its wearers. But is that fair? Other companies are racing to compete, but none appear to have caught up to Nike just yet. And, whether or not it is fair, is it legal?

In April 2017, the IAAF significantly modified its rule regarding shoes, apparently due to “speculation and the increased interest in the development” of the 4% and other shoes. Before the rule change, “[a]ll types of competition shoes [had to] be approved by IAAF.” After the change IAAF appears to approve the shoes post hoc, and only “[w]here evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them” at which point “it may refer the shoe for study and if there is non-compliance may prohibit such shoes from being used in competition.” In response to the advantage conferred by the Nike VaporFly, IAAF released a statement in mid-October stating that its technical committee had established a working group to look into the issue.

Even if IAAF eventually determines that Nike’s technological advances are too advantageous, Nike seems to be the main beneficiary, thus far, of IAAF’s rule change. Nike has received an enormous amount of free press, this blog included, because of the recent spate of record-breaking performances, and the surrounding controversy. However, a group that could benefit are up-and-coming, innovative, shoe manufacturers. In the late aughts, a company called Spira built a marketing campaign around being banned by USATF and IAAF because of springs in their shoes. Whether or not Spira was ever actually banned appears to be an open question—USATF repeatedly stated that Spira was not banned, and three runners wore Spira shoes in the 2008 Olympics. However, Spira filed a lawsuit against USATF and IAAF, alleging that the organizations had violated antitrust laws. Spira voluntarily dismissed the suit. Although there is other evidence that USATF believed that Spira did not comply with the IAAF shoe rules.

Spira still exists today, though they never took off as a serious running shoe brand. Whether the Spira controversy was completely authentic or drummed up for publicity, the next Spira could benefit from IAAF’s rule change. Instead of worrying about when and if they’ll receive IAAF approval, a new company and its shoe will only be scrutinized by IAAF if “evidence is provided to the IAAF that a type of shoe being used in competition does not comply with the Rules or the spirit of them.”


Delay of Game: How the MLB’s Baseball Exemption has Stood the Test of Time

Alex Karnopp, MJLST Staffer 

Rushing home after a long day at law school, I eagerly anticipated tuning in to the Milwaukee Brewers match-up with their division rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals. With the two teams vying for a spot in the upcoming playoffs, the game’s broadcast was, expectedly, upgraded to a national broadcast on ESPN. But as I tuned in, I couldn’t find the broadcast. I checked online, and sure enough, my Minneapolis cable provider had blocked the broadcast. They incorrectly determined I was within viewing territory of the local Fox Sports Wisconsin broadcast of the game. On top of that, my MLB.tv internet streaming subscription was blocked because of their policy of not airing national broadcasts. Despite my numerous subscriptions to ensure I could view all Milwaukee Brewers game throughout the season, I was prevented from watching one of their biggest games of the year.

To MLB fans, my situation comes to no surprise – the “black-box” broadcasting policies of the league leaves many viewers without choices, since MLB-determined blackout territories usually outreach local broadcasting territories. Cities like Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Las Vegas, Nevada, fall outside any local viewing broadcast territories, yet sit between six overlapping MLB blackout areas. Complaining fans have caught the attention of the legal system. A couple recent class action lawsuits seek to challenge the MLB’s policy of entering these lucrative contracts with local broadcasting networks. However, they face difficult legal hurdles, specifically the established Baseball Exemption.  

The Baseball Exemption has been the cornerstone of the MLB’s antitrust defense since its establishment in 1922 by the Supreme Court in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Courts have routinely upheld the exemption, most recently in Flood v. Kuhn. They noted in this opinion, however, this exemption should be modified by “congressional, and no judicial, action.”

The two lawsuits, Laumann v. NHL and Garber v. Office of the Comm’r of Baseball, were consolidated, and sought to singlehandedly dismantle these television contracts as violations of the Sherman Act. Legal scholars expressed optimism this would end the Baseball Exemption defense as applied to broadcasting. As these scholars expected, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, on denying MLB’s motion for Summary Judgment, rejected their argument that the Baseball Exemption applied to televised broadcasting. Sensing danger, the MLB settled with the class minutes before the trial began. While conceding marginally better access to their MLB.tv proprietary internet streaming service, they preserved their blackout policy.

With their deep pockets, the MLB will continue this pattern of deferring judicial adjudication of the blackout policy by settling these class action lawsuits. If classes want to dismantle the MLB’s suspect blackout policies, they need to take the Supreme Court’s advice in Kuhn and resolve the problem via legislation. In 2015, Congress introduced the FANS Act to ensure antitrust laws applied equally among all American professional sports teams. There has been no movement since. Perhaps the lawsuit signals to Congress of the social and legal momentum to end the MLB’s blackout policies. However, these class action lawsuits will likely have no more effect than that. It will be interesting to see if Congress does anything with the introduced bill, as it appears the best route to fix this current problem.