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  Nike Steps Up With $25,000 for Harding's Defense

By Mark Asher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 2, 1994; Page C1




The Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan rivalry for an Olympic gold medal in figure skating — and $10 million in potential monetary rewards — is intense, but it pales in comparison with the competition between Nike Inc., and Reebok, megarivals for megabucks in the multibillion-dollar athletic footwear and clothing industry.

Harding, who lives in Portland, Ore., and Nike, which is headquartered in its suburbs, became intertwined Monday. Phil Knight, Nike's chief executive officer, announced his company would contribute $25,000 to help Harding defend herself against the U.S. Olympic Committee should it try to remove her from the U.S. Winter Olympics team before she has her day in court. Harding has no contractual ties to Nike.

Kerrigan has an endorsement contract with Reebok and is a brand spokesman for the company's commitment to women's sports, spokesman Dave Fogelson said. Kerrigan is one of three Olympic medalists appearing in a new Reebok advertising campaign emphasizing women athletes overcoming obstacles to be successful. It will debut with a 30-second Kerrigan spot during the second week of the Winter Games, Fogelson said.

Nike had a net income of $363 million on total sales of $3.9 billion in its last fiscal year. Reebok announced yesterday a net income in its last fiscal year of $223.4 million on sales of $2.9 billion. Those figures rank the companies 1-2 nationally in their industry.

Yesterday in Portland, Jeff Gillooly, Harding's ex-husband, struck a plea bargain under which he confessed to one racketeering charge in exchange for his testimony implicating Harding in the Jan. 6 clubbing of Kerrigan.

Gillooly's lawyer, Ronald H. Hoevet, in remarks made after the plea bargain, said Harding knew of the attack in advance and lied to authorities in Detroit when she was questioned following the attack.

She has denied prior knowledge of the assault on Kerrigan.

Knight was not available to comment yesterday, but on Monday he told ESPN: "There is a real drive to declare her guilty before she has a trial. What's happening is that the USOC feels some pressure to rush to judgment quickly because the Olympic Games are coming up. If she wins and is guilty, you can take her medals away, but if in fact she is innocent and doesn't get to skate, you can never repair that damage, ever. ...

"I really think the public and the media has confused [USOC Executive Director] Harvey Schiller with [U.S. Attorney General] Janet Reno."

Keith Peters, a Nike spokesman, said concerns for an athlete's rights of due process — and not business reasons — drove Knight's thinking on this issue.

"Nobody can give Butch Reynolds back the 1992 Olympics," Peters said. "It's the same principle here. Phil genuinely wishes he had done something for Butch. This is a question of what can or can't be made up to an athlete. That's why we're doing this. It goes back to 1992 and Butch. [The cases are] not exactly comparable, but it's the closest thing we've got."

Reynolds, who failed a controversial 1990 drug test and was suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, appealed to a U.S. arbitrator and won the right to compete in the 400 meters at the U.S. track and field trials for the world championships.

He did not qualify. But he did qualify for the U.S. 4x400-meter relay team for the 1992 Olympics, but could not compete when the IAAF refused to certify him. Reynolds subsequently sued the International Olympic Committee and won $27.3 million in damages, none of which he has received.

Under the Amateur Sports Act, which set up a system of due process for athletes and was passed by Congress and signed into law in 1978, the USOC is the final arbitrator of whether an athlete can participate in the Olympics. Harding was named to the U.S. team on Monday, but she can be replaced until Feb. 21.

When the subject turned to an athlete abiding by an organization's rules, Peters replied: "Now we're getting into a very gray area."

Some have suggested that $25,000 is a small investment to make in Harding if she is found not to have had prior knowledge of the attack on Kerrigan, especially with her name recognition. One coach affiliated with Nike who asked for anonymity recalled that Nike had turned basketball star Charles Barkley's negative image into a very successful ad campaign.

Peters said Nike had considered a proposal from Harding about six months ago and decided not to sponsor her "because the Winter Olympics and the products that go along with those opportunities are not business categories we are involved in. ... If everything came out to the good [in the courts], there still isn't an endorsement we would seek."

Reebok's Fogelson said the decision to have an ad campaign using Kerrigan was made a year ago and not as a response to the attack on her. He said Reebok also believes that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but that "the law of the land" has resulted in the USOC "setting up a system for evaluating whether they should be a member of the team ... and it's clearly a process we would not interfere with."

Staff writer Christine Brennan contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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