Kanye West introduced a cleats-version of his Yeezy boosts earlier this year but faced a setback last month when the National Football League (“NFL”) fined Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins the sum of $6,000 for wearing a pair of West’s adidas-manufactured “Yeezy” football cleats in the Texans’ 23-14 victory over the Chicago Bears.
The cleats in question ran afoul of Rule 4, Section 4, Article 3, Item 7 of the NFL Rulebook, which states in part that:
“Shoes must be of standard football design, including “sneaker” type shoes such as basketball shoes, cross-training does, etc. Each team must designate a dominant base color for its shows, either black or white (with shoelace color conforming to the dominant base color of the tongue area of the shoe). Each team must also designate one of its Constitutional uniform colors as a dominant team color for its shoes… Each player may select among shoe styles previously approved by the League office. All players on the same team must wear shoes with the same dominant base color… Logos, names, or other commercial identification on shows are not permitted to be visible unless advance approval is granted by the League office.”
The Yeezy cleats in question were produced in a marled “Turtle Dove” knit. They did not have a dominant base color of either black or white and were not the same base color as the shoes worn by his team-mates. The shoes therefore contravened the requirements of the NFL Rulebook.
This is not the first time a player has fallen foul of the NFL’s Rulebook in respect of uniform violations, nor are fines for uniform violations confined to American football:
Michael Jordan was reportedly fined $5,000 by the National Basketball Association (the “NBA”) every time he wore a pair of red and black Nike trainers during the 1984 season. Nike went on to use this notoriety to promote its Air Jordan range of shoes.
English football player Robbie Fowler was fined £900 by UEFA in 1997 for revealing a t-shirt that showed support for sacked Liverpool dockers after scoring against SK Brann. At the time, a spokesperson for the UEFA Control and Disciplinary Committee stated that: “By lifting his shirt and displaying the message, Fowler violated Uefa regulations. Although we may sympathize with such support, it is a strict rule that a football ground is not the right stage for political demonstrations.”
The Women’s National Basketball Association (the “WNBA”) recently fined the New York Liberty, Phoenix Mercury and Indiana Fever, together with their players, for wearing black warm-up shirts following recent shootings by and against police officers. Each team was fined $5,000, while each player involved was fined $500.
Danish football player Nicklas Bendtner was banned for one match and fined £80,000 for exposing underwear sponsored by the betting company, Paddy Power, during his country’s match against Portugal in the UEFA European Championship in 2012. The relevant rule in force at the time stated that: “Players must not reveal undershirts which contain slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements. A player removing his jersey to reveal slogans will be sanctioned by the competition organizer.”
The question that arises from cases of this nature is why sports governing bodies seek to control so closely what participants wear.
In terms of promotional, political, religious or personal statements contained on (or under) sporting equipment, the answer to this question is clear. Sports governing bodies cannot afford to be seen to take any particular side of a contentious issue, particularly in cases where they may have aligned themselves with commercial partners or sponsors whose own interests may differ to those of the participant. The sums at stake in many sports are simply too large for sports governing bodies to take the risk.
The same point applies to supporters. Sports governing bodies are keenly aware that their product (i.e. the sport itself) appeals to a wide range of people who hold a spectrum of different beliefs. The governing bodies do not wish to ostracize any of their potential fan-base and the simplest way to avoid doing so is through tight regulation of what players are (and are not) allowed to wear.
There is also a practical reason for this control. In team sports such as American football, basketball and football, the fact that players wear kits that match their team-mates and are distinct from those worn by their opponents helps aid recognition. This recognition and ability to differentiate is vital to the participants and the officials on the pitch but is equally as important to fans watching in person or on television.
This practical rationale is also underpinned by a subsidiary commercial concern. The strength of brand recognition of specific teams’ and franchises’ colors among supporters provides sports governing bodies with a further commercial incentive to regulate this area.
Where does the fine imposed on DeAndre Hopkins leave Kanye West’s cleats? Unless players are willing to pay a fine every time they wear the cleats, Mr. West may have to rethink the position. Unless another color-way of the Yeezy cleats can be produced in accordance with the requirements set out in the NFL Rulebook, an alternative may be to explore the potentials of the football market, where boots in every shade of every color are sported at every level of the game and are permissible under the Laws of the Game. Even “Turtle Dove."
LLOYD P. THOMAS is an associate in the Litigation department and is part of the Sports Law team in Squire Patton Boggs’ London office.