The Sock Empire That Wasn’t

A Maryland manufacturer created innovative socks that are beloved by high-profile athletes. So why is the company itself such a mess?

(Photo illustration by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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In May 2018, at the final of the Champions League — a year-long tournament featuring Europe’s best soccer clubs — Gareth Bale, the man-bun-wearing Real Madrid star, hit one of those goals you instantly knew you’d see replayed for the rest of your life. In the 64th minute, as a teammate crossed the ball in the air toward the middle of their opponents’ penalty area, Bale drifted away from the defenders marking him, raised his leg to a 90-degree angle, as if stepping on an invisible stair, then swung his other leg up while diving backward, sending the ball into the upper corner of the goal. For weeks afterward, images of Bale frozen in midair circulated around the globe. And in those images, if you looked closely, you could see an odd-looking sock — featuring a pattern of rectangles — covering Bale’s heel.

The sock was manufactured by Trusox, a company that was the brainchild of a former U.S. soccer player and coach from Baltimore named James Cherneski. His simple idea had been to create a sock that didn’t slip inside shoes. And judging by the lengths that some soccer players would go to wear them, he was on to something.

(Photo illustration by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Consider what unfolded at the World Cup in Russia, six weeks after the Champions League final: Soccer’s governing body, FIFA, fined the national soccer associations of England and Sweden about $70,000 each because four players (three from England and one from Sweden) had worn Trusox over socks made by Nike — the official supplier for both teams. And this was not a first-time transgression: All four men had ignored previous warnings to take off their Trusox socks. (Sweden and England appealed the fines.)

But while the socks engendered tremendous loyalty, the company that made them was in trouble. Today, Cherneski is locked in a legal battle with two of the company’s investors over its future. One of those investors happens to be Bill Plank, a brother of the founder of Under Armour — itself once an underdog to Nike and Adidas in the sports apparel world, but now one of the big boys that Trusox sought to challenge. From Plank to Cherneski to the athletes who have continued to risk fines by wearing the socks, there have been, and still are, no shortage of people who believed fervently in the product Trusox created. And yet, the company itself has never come close to achieving its lofty ambitions.

Trusox investor Bill Plank instructs his aikido class in Silver Spring, Md., in 2015. (Photo by Michal Rubin/The Washington Post)

I first met Bill Plank in person in October 2015 at the aikido studio he runs in downtown Silver Spring. He was clean-shaven with graying wavy hair and eyeglasses. I had come to ask about Trusox, which he had invested in a couple of years before. Before my visit, Plank had emailed me reports from the European press about Nike and Adidas demanding players shed their Trusox. But as soon as I turned on my recorder, Plank launched into a filibuster about his relationship with his younger brother Kevin, the founder, chairman and chief executive of Under Armour.

“You might as well call me ‘Trotsky’ and call Kevin ‘Stalin,’ ” said Bill, who didn’t speak the words as much as grumbly fire them at me. Unlike in the case of Stalin and Trotsky, the saga of the Brothers Plank involved no assassination by ice pick — but rather legal settlements that allow Bill to live comfortably, while also precluding him from speaking in full detail about the origins of their dispute.

The falling out between the brothers — Bill is the oldest of five boys; Kevin is the youngest — dates to the mid-1990s, not long after Kevin, a special teams captain on the University of Maryland football squad, set out to make an undershirt that didn’t soak up so much sweat. Kevin turned to his family for an investment. After their father, William Plank, a real estate developer, died in 1993, “we had set up this little family partnership that I was trying to create to fund business interests that people might have,” Bill explained. It ran on Robert’s Rules of Order and was chaired by his mother, Jayne, a former mayor of Kensington, Md., and senior State Department official in the Reagan administration. Kevin made his pitch, but the rest of the family “all left, and the only ones left were me and Kevin,” Bill said.

Investor Bill Plank pushed for a Trusox expansion, but he had doubts. “We’ve got so much stuff on the drawing board, and it’s still on the drawing board,” he said in 2016.

“The part I did that you can point to is the name and logo. That’s it. The rest is who said what, when,” he recalled. “The origin story of Under Armour, I don’t actually know what that is, at this point.”

Kevin told The Washington Post in 2014 that he had initially wanted to call his T-shirt company Body Armor. Then one day on the way to lunch, Bill misheard (or ribbed) Kevin about his new venture and referred to it as “under armor.” The name stuck, with Kevin adopting the British spelling of “armor” because, as he told The Post, “I thought the phone number 888-4ARMOUR was much more compelling than 888-44ARMOR.”

Bill said he helped the company grow by working with Kevin and taking a particular interest in its marketing. But as Under Armour became a major challenger to Nike and Adidas — making Kevin a billionaire in the process — Bill contends that his role in the Under Armour origin story diminished almost to nothing, except for the “Body Armor” anecdote. At one point he warned that if I wrote about him and Under Armour, “Kevin would sue you into the earth because I don’t exist in the history of Under Armour at all.”

Diane Pelkey, Under Armour’s senior vice president of communications, told me simply: “There’s no competing version of the founding of Under Armour,” and said the company had documentation of the history of the logo, though she declined to provide further detail. Through Pelkey and his press shop, Kevin declined to speak, as did his siblings and his mother, all of whom own shares in Under Armour. When reached over the phone, their mother said she didn’t want to get between her sons.

Bill said that while he couldn’t talk about his early role in Under Armour, he’d seen the blueprint a sports apparel company needed for success — and aimed to repeat it. “Every company that I studied,” he said, “started with one product.” For Nike, it had been sneakers. For his brother, it had been a T-shirt. Surely a company could do the same with socks.

Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale wearing Trusox, just visible above his cleats. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

During the last game of the 2007 season of a now-defunct soccer team called Crystal Palace Baltimore, James Cherneski — a player-coach for the team — couldn’t stop thinking about his socks. “I absolutely hated the movement inside my shoe,” he says. He went online and started doing research about different nonslip materials. “I ended up going to a mill in Alabama, a place called Fort Payne, Alabama,” he recalls. “When you go into the town, it’s got like a half-broken-down sign that says, ‘Sock Capital of the World.’ At one point, it was.”

He went to Fort Payne for about a week of trial and error with different materials until he and the sock makers found a combination that would stop movement — but only as long as you didn’t sweat when exercising. Still, it represented progress, and Cherneski filed for what would be his first of several patents. He received it three years later, right around the time Crystal Palace Baltimore folded in 2010 because of financial problems with its parent club in London.

It would take Cherneski and the fabric millers years to find the right combination of materials that worked on sweaty feet. During that time, Cherneski and his family — he has two children — would go through financial struggles as he pursued his quixotic sock dream. He coached youth soccer in the Baltimore area to earn money, “but it nowhere near paid for our family to eat.” Along the way, the accountants for Crystal Palace Baltimore, Jeffrey Ring and Sanford Fisher, became investors in his venture.

In 2011, Cherneski set up a headquarters and manufacturing operation in a modest commercial center in Glen Burnie, Md., where it still resides next to an airsoft gun supply store. The company caught a break in 2012, when Welshman Gareth Bale, then an up-and-coming striker for the English Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, started wearing Trusox, after Cherneski used connections he had through his old club to plant his socks in the hands of U.K.-based players, like an athletic footwear Johnny Appleseed.

“Going into that year he was a good player, not a great player,” Cherneski recalls. But Bale went on to score a career-high 30 goals across all competitions that season and won the player-of-the-year award in England. He later transferred to Real Madrid for a record 100 million euros. When Bale gathered himself for free kicks, and the camera would zoom in on his feet, you could see on his heel the Trusox rectangles — patterned after the raised points that run unseen on the bottom of the foot, giving the sock traction.

Cherneski described the lawsuit filed by Plank and investor Sanford Fisher as an “attempted takeover.” When I asked Plank about that over the phone in June, he said: “It was not a takeover attempt. It was an escape attempt.”

On his chest, however, he wore a shirt bearing the interlocking “U” and “A” symbol of Under Armour, which at the time provided the team’s uniforms. And that juxtaposition of logos erupted into a mini-scandal. Cherneski says that Bale told him, “You wouldn’t believe how hard Under Armour and my club tried to stop me from wearing these socks.” According to Cherneski, Bale would wait until everyone left his team’s dressing room following a match before taking off his Trusox, which he wore under a pair of team-approved Under Armour socks with the bottom cut out. Though Under Armour’s logo appeared on Bale’s shin, Trusox grids poked up over the heel of his cleats. He would eventually hand the Trusox to an assistant for washing at home to avoid any more run-ins with Under Armour representatives. (Bale’s representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests.)

In an emailed statement, Kelley McCormick Jenkins, another spokesperson for Under Armour, said, “We do not have any specific comment,” regarding what Cherneski alleged about Bale, “but it is important to note that it is standard industry practice for a sports brand, when making a partnership deal with exclusive uniform rights, to hold all of the athletes, clubs and partners to their obligation.”

Business began to take off, and soon Trusox ran into trouble keeping up with demand. The company needed money to keep growing, so Cherneski made pitches to investors he met through friends and family. In October 2013, Bill Plank provided $1.5 million for a 20 percent stake in the company, according to court records. The parallels with Under Armour were not lost on him. “I’ve been trying to do essentially the same thing I did with Under Armour,” Plank told me, “which is kind of help them focus on a bigger picture, on building a brand.”

While Plank admired the product Cherneski had created, he thought it should be the foundation for something better. Soon Trusox would expand into more products, from baseball to Alpine skiing gear, as part of a vision to turn it into a bona fide competitor to larger companies.

And for a time, it looked as if the company had momentum. Miguel Cabrera, the two-time most valuable player in major league baseball, began wearing the socks in 2016, as well as a cleat designed by the company. Cherneski said they had started to penetrate rugby and cricket, too.

But Plank, who pushed for the expansion — which would have made the company look much more like Under Armour — also harbored doubts that Cherneski could pull it off. “We’ve got so much stuff on the drawing board, and it’s still on the drawing board,” he told me in 2016. Bill, who described his brother’s focus on business as alien to him but also impressive, told me several months after our first conversation: “Cherneski is not Kevin.”

(Photo illustration by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In March 2017, Cherneski and Plank found themselves opposite each other, in a courtroom in Annapolis. The men listened as Circuit Court Judge William C. Mulford II talked about the time he drank with the Irish national men’s soccer team and met the drummer from U2 in a bathroom in Orlando, where he and a buddy had gone to watch the World Cup. “He was all dressed in black and leather,” Mulford said, according to court transcripts. “I have no idea why I was sitting at the table with these people.” The judge also shared his thoughts on former U.S. women’s national team goalie Hope Solo: “How someone that crazy can be so great in sports,” he mused.

In his roundabout way, Mulford was explaining that he’s not a soccer fan. And yet, there he was at the end of weeks of court proceedings, weighing whether he should allow Trusox to carry on as a business or whether he should, as Plank and fellow investor Sanford Fisher wanted, force the company into bankruptcy and receivership.

Plank and Fisher sued Cherneski over, among other things, his handling of the company’s accounting and patents and his decision to have his brother act as director of global sales in violation of a clause in their operating agreement against employing family. Evidence presented in the case showed that Trusox, instead of following the trajectory of Under Armour, had struggled. Multiple people involved with the company told me they thought that Cherneski — who had moved from Maryland to Manchester, England — became more focused on rubbing elbows with world-class soccer players than expanding Trusox.

However, in December 2017, about nine months after the start of the trial, Mulford ruled that even though Cherneski had not shown his investors the company’s books, and had made some late patent filings, Trusox was still a viable business and not a candidate for bankruptcy or receivership. He also ruled that Plank and Fisher owed Cherneski hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. Plank and Fisher are appealing the decision. The next court date is this March.

I spoke to Cherneski a few months after the judge’s decision. He said Adidas and the governing European soccer body had colluded against Trusox during the 2016 European Championship. He claimed to have footage of officials telling players to take the socks off before matches. He said FIFA sent them correspondence declaring them a “high profile company,” in what he took as an effort to force Trusox to pony up sponsorship money for the World Cup. Then there were imitators that had entered the market. All of that led to a temporary drop in the number of professional players wearing Trusox, Cherneski said. And he personally lobbied players to come back. “Adidas and Nike, they absolutely hate us. And that’s great, to be hated by those world powers,” he said.

I asked in a follow-up email to see a copy of the FIFA letter and the recording he mentioned. Cherneski’s lawyer, Jeff Schwaber, responded by phone that his client wouldn’t be commenting further while the court case is pending. A spokesman for FIFA declined to comment specifically about the letter Cherneski mentioned but said via email: “Generally speaking, please note that the FIFA Disciplinary Committee takes its decisions independently and based on the specificities of each matter. All decisions are passed after having analysed the respective evidences as well as the factors surrounding each infringement.” Representatives for Nike and Adidas did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Cherneski described the lawsuit filed by Plank and Fisher as an “attempted takeover” but declined to go into detail. When I asked Plank about that over the phone in June, he said: “It was not a takeover attempt. It was an escape attempt.”

Plank said he had pushed Cherneski to branch out from socks and drafted a full marketing strategy, new logo and athletic line for the expansion, which he and the two other major investors wanted. But, he alleged, “Cherneski basically threw everything out the window” and sought investment elsewhere. (While Fisher and Plank sued Cherneski, the third major investor — Fisher’s accounting partner Jeffrey Ring — chose to sit out the lawsuit, citing religious reasons. “I take seriously the biblical abrogation not to sue your Christian brother,” Ring told me, referencing the fact that both he and Cherneski are devout.) “Cherneski is a narcissist and lives in a self-referential bubble of crazy,” Plank told me in June. “He basically believes he’s on a mission from God to make socks for people.”

Plank had invested in the company in part to prove a point: that he knew how to make stuff look cool enough to help turn a small start-up into a much larger corporation. In the end, however, his experience and capital infusion, Cherneski’s entrepreneurial zeal, Fisher and Ring’s seed money, and the endorsement — albeit unofficial — of pro athletes had not been enough to create a sports apparel juggernaut.

“I started out with a lot of optimism,” Plank said of his experience with Trusox, sounding remarkably chipper about the whole circumstance. Now, he holds out no expectation of making money off the venture. “It’s a weird story,” he went on, then paused, sounding perplexed and maybe even a little amused. “I don’t exactly know where to put it in the library.”

Colin Wilhelm is a reporter for the Washington Examiner.

Credits: Story by Colin Wilhelm. Designed by Michael Johnson.