Why Deion Sanders said he'd never work with Nike again ... but he is now, sort of

Deion Sanders has said he would never work with Nike again.

That’s been his answer in recent years when asked about wearing Nike shoes or resuming his relationship with the shoe company that once helped make him rich:

“Never,” he said in 2017.

He has given several reasons for this, all personal.

So how is the former two-sport superstar working around this now that he is the new head football coach at Colorado, a Nike-sponsored school since 1995? A little awkwardly at first, according to contracts obtained by USA TODAY Sports and an abundance of video footage of Sanders on the job in Boulder.

After cutting ties with Nike many years ago, Sanders has had a relationship with Under Armour, a Nike rival, since 2009, according to Under Armour.

But then in December, Sanders was hired at Colorado, whose sponsorship agreement with Nike runs through June 2025. That contract says the university shall require its football coaches and team members to “exclusively” use Nike products during games, practices and other university-sanctioned activities such as interviews and photo sessions. Sanders’ five-year contract with Colorado even states:

"Coach agrees that at all times while he is acting in his official capacity as head football coach (including coaching, recruiting, fundraising, appearing on television or radio as the head coach, etc.,) he will wear NIKE-University co-branded products, as appropriate."

Colorado coach Deion Sanders faces an awkward situation as the school has a contract with Nike, a company he had vowed to never work with again.
Colorado coach Deion Sanders faces an awkward situation as the school has a contract with Nike, a company he had vowed to never work with again.

This in turn has created a delicate situation involving the personal interests of a national sports celebrity (Sanders) and the business interests of two others – his new employer (Colorado) and a giant sports apparel company (Nike).

He’s only been on the job about eight weeks but still has made a flurry of national media appearances in which he has not worn Colorado Nike clothes on camera.

'Cheatin' on somebody’

Sanders instead has worn Colorado hats and shirts without Nike logos, including on ESPN’s "College GameDay" Jan. 9, on Fox after an NFL playoff game Jan. 14 and Jan. 16 on ESPN2’s “ManningCast.”

He did wear a white Colorado Nike jacket when he appeared on "CBS Mornings" on Jan. 10. But he changed his top later that day when he appeared on "The Pat McAfee Show" in a non-Nike Colorado hat and a hooded Colorado sweatshirt with no apparent Nike logo.

In one behind-the-scenes video posted on YouTube Jan. 11, Sanders was shown trying on Nike shoes at CU to help his ailing feet. Sanders said then it was the first time he had worn Nikes in “at least 15 years.”

“Feel like I’m cheatin' on somebody,” Sanders said on the video from Thee Pregame Show.

It still wasn’t clear whether this was only a temporary matter of convenience, since he now works in a CU athletics building stocked with Nike footwear. Sanders didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment through his representatives or CU.

Sanders' shoe sensitivity

Once famous for his fast feet, Sanders, 55, has been hobbled by foot problems in recent years, including the amputation of two toes. He even was shown getting ready for a foot treatment in a YouTube video dated Jan. 13 – after removing black Under Armour shoes. On Jan. 23, his Instagram account showed him praising a shipment of another shoe brand designed to help him with his discomfort. It wasn’t Nike. It was Oofos, a shoe brand designed to reduce stress on the feet.

“I love it man,” Sanders said. “These are unbelievable – the look.”

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He was photographed wearing those shoes this week. Other YouTube videos documenting his new job in Boulder since early December often have shown Sanders wearing an array of Colorado sports apparel without the Nike logo, including a new line of CU gear featuring his nickname – “Coach Prime.” In some clips this month he is shown wearing CU caps with Nike logos on the side, including one video in which he also is wearing a white Under Armour jacket and black Under Armour sweatshirt.

Such videos are not officially sanctioned by the university and instead are often produced by his son Deion Jr., who posts them on YouTube under his brand Well Off Media. Sanders Jr. posted another video Jan. 23 in which Michael Smith, CU’s assistant athletic director for sports equipment services, tried to give Sanders some Nike clothes.

“These are the first four things that we’ve got just to kind of get you a little bit of swooshed swag,” Smith said, referring to the Nike Swoosh logo.

“Mm-hmm,” Sanders replied before he turned his attention to team uniform designs.

Why does it matter? Each party in this arrangement has a stake in the logos Sanders wears, especially as sales of Colorado apparel have soared since his hiring.

Nike didn’t return messages seeking comment. Under Armour provided a statement to USA TODAY Sports in December but declined further comment.

“Under Armour has a longstanding relationship with Deion Sanders stretching back to 2009,” the company said. “We are proud of our partnership and all that he has achieved positively impacting athletes. We wish Coach Prime the best as he assumes the role of head coach for Colorado and look forward to watching him find continued success.”

Sanders’ sour relationship with Nike

This has been personal to him. He encountered a similar situation after he was hired as coach at Jackson State in Mississippi in 2020. Jackson State then was a Nike-sponsored school until Sanders changed that by bringing in Under Armour, whose founder, Kevin Plank, is his friend.

His feelings on this matter go back to 1992, when he signed an endorsement deal with Nike and starred in national commercials for the company as a two-sport star in the NFL and Major League Baseball. He even helped design Nike signature shoes to look like mini-Lamborghinis on turf.

The problem is he doesn’t think he has been properly compensated for the latter. He explained it in an interview about sneakers in 2017, when he said he helped create his signature Nike shoes with Nike designer Tracy Teague.

“That’s why I’m upset with them right now,” he told Joe La Puma of Complex, a multimedia company that covers pop culture.  “We created these together, but they don’t want to seed me. They don’t want to direct-deposit.”

“Do you think you’ll maybe work with Nike again?” La Puma asked in the video from 2017.

“Never,” Sanders replied. “I’m an Under Armour guy.”

More Nike issues

Sanders has had other grievances with Nike, too. He has said Nike didn’t want to help him fund youth sports leagues, unlike Under Armour. “I’ve got to have a plan to sustain the shorties, with the youth leagues and all that, and they weren’t with it,” Sanders said on Full Size Run, a sneaker talk show, in 2019.

“You’ve got to be careful how you treat people because you never know,” he said.

Sanders also has said he never met Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder and former CEO, despite all the money they made together in the 1990s.

“I thought that was kind of offensive,” Sanders said on the same show in 2019.

“Will you ever wear those old (Nike) shoes form back in the day?” Sanders was asked then.

“Never,” he said. “Never.”

Why it matters to Nike

The company’s longtime deal with Colorado is about visibility for its brand, just like its sponsorship agreements with many other schools, players and teams. In exchange for that exposure, the company has agreed to pay Colorado about $3 million annually in cash and Nike products - $750,000 this year in cash, plus $2.3 million in products.

Its relationship with Colorado goes back to 1995, when CU was a top 25 football program that had won a share of the national championship in 1990 and Heisman Trophy in 1994 with running back Rashaan Salaam. Colorado’s moonshot hiring of Sanders arguably amplifies its national exposure to its highest point since that era.

But it’s not helping Nike maximize its return on investment with Colorado if the most visible Colorado athletics employee is wearing other athletic apparel on camera and praising shoes from a different brand.

Its contract with CU says that a coach’s wearing of “non-athletic” apparel in connection with his coaching shall not constitute a breach of contract. It also states a team member can wear non-Nike footwear if he is unable to wear Nike due to a certified medical condition – as long as the brand of that other footwear is taped over or covered.

Why it matters to Colorado

Colorado’s longtime marriage with Nike could go south if Nike believes it is breaching its contract by not forcing its head football coach to wear Nike gear “as appropriate.” Nike could try to terminate the sponsorship contract with CU in this circumstance, which also could lead to a dispute over money.

But Sanders means more to the Buffaloes right now than the Nike Swoosh logo. Could Sanders’ lack of enthusiasm for Nike prompt Nike to terminate its deal with CU before its contract runs out?

Or does Nike want to stick with the Buffaloes as long as possible, now that the company stands to gain even more exposure from a Colorado team that is much more nationally relevant under Sanders? Even if Sanders doesn’t want to wear Nike, the players and other coaches still will be dressed in Nike apparel according to the sponsorship contract.

Sanders did wear a Colorado hat with Nike logo on the side during his introductory news conference at CU Dec. 4. Afterward, USA TODAY Sports asked CU athletic director Rick George about the apparent conflict between CU as a Nike school and Sanders as an Under Armour endorser.

“It won’t make a difference,” he said then.

USA TODAY Sports sent the university questions about this topic again this week but didn’t immediately get answers. It’s a touchy subject for sensitive feet.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Deion Sanders, Nike become an awkward fit at Colorado