Quarterbacks Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Robert Griffin III of the Washington Redskins have generated controversy by deliberately covering the Nike swoosh on their practice gear.
Nike took over this spring as the NFL's new official outfitter, succeeding Reebok, which held the contract for the previous decade. But Mr. Brady endorses Under Armour while Mr. Griffin pitches for Adidas. They're clearly rebelling against the idea of wearing the Swoosh if they're not getting paid.
Mr. Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner from Baylor nicknamed "RGIII," got the ball rolling by crudely drawing the word "Heart" over the Swoosh on his warmup shirt before a game against the New Orleans Saints. The NFL cracked down on Mr. Griffin. The rookie QB hasn't tried it again.
Then Brady followed suit by slapping what appeared to be adhesive tape over the Swoosh logo on the sleeve of his Nike sweatshirt before taking the podium at a Patriots press conference.
But Mr. Brady got away with it because he covered up the logo on a midweek practice day.
"Policy only pertains to game day," said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy.
Ironically, the cover-ups by Mr. Brady and Mr. Griffin only "brought more attention" to the Nike logo, said David Schwab of Octagon, who matches celebrity endorsers with marketers and ad agencies.
Athletic endorsers have played games with rival logos before. During the sneaker wars of the early 1990s, NBA superstars Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were Nike 's most famous endorsers while Magic Johnson pitched Converse.
When the men's basketball "Dream Team" stormed through the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, the trio had a choice to make. They could accept their gold medals for Team USA while wearing the logo of Reebok, the Olympics' official medal-stand-uniform outfitter. Or cover it up. Their solution: draping American flags around their shoulders that covered the Reebok logos.
The players came off as more concerned with their sponsors than their country in some quarters. But that 's the reality when millions of dollars are at stake, said Ernest Lupinacci, a former creative director on Nike advertising at Wieden & Kennedy.
Athletic endorsers often have what they see as good reasons for distancing themselves from rival logos, he said. First, marketing-savvy athletes want to be seen as loyal business partners. These stunts give them points in their favor when contract time rolls around. They also provide cover if they're photographed wearing or using a rival brand at some other time.
Still, athletes like Mr. Brady and Mr. Griffin are not seeing the big picture, said Mr. Lupinacci. Nike is paying the NFL to be its official business outfitter.
"That money is going to find its way into your pocket -- directly or indirectly," Mr. Lupinacci said. "If anything I think it diminishes Tom Brady. . . . In the back of your mind you're going, 'This guy has the presence of mind (before a presser) to tape over a Nike logo?' It seems like small potatoes on his part."