Sponsor conflict, good intentions, big business: The USWNT's fired kit man
Behind every U.S. World Cup team is a dedicated support staff that works long hours with little recognition. It’s a large group that includes nutritionists, cooks, trainers, massage therapists, press officers and so on. And as anyone who has played at a high level will tell you, one of the most important unsung roles on a team is that of the kit man (or woman, as it were).
The kit man oversees and organizes all the player uniforms, cleats and team apparel, knowing the personal preferences of every member on the squad, from players to coaching staff. The kit man makes sure that truckloads of gear are readied and shipped on time, and that all the names and numbers are ironed on the uniforms just right. If a player is slipping on a wet field, it’s up to the kit man to suggest the right length of studs for a player to screw into her boots.
Being a kit man for the national team is a full-time job. When the team is together, that means working from 7 a.m. to midnight or later. When the team isn’t together, it’s still a 9-to-5 gig, from organizing inventory to debriefing from the last trip to preparing for the next one.
As you might expect, a good kit man builds a hard-won trust with the players, who regard their personal gear as the tools of their trade. A kit man often becomes friends with the players, a pillar of support who’s always there through good times and bad.
David Beckham, for example, became best friends with Terry Byrne, the kit man for England’s 1998 World Cup team. It was Byrne who accompanied Beckham into the tunnel when he was famously sent off against Argentina that year. “He literally broke down, completely crying in my arms like a baby,” said Byrne, who would go on to become Beckham’s personal manager and a godfather to his children.
This is a story about a kit man, Chris Maxwell, who worked for the U.S. women’s national team from October 2013 until he was fired in February 2015, just four months before this World Cup. This is a story about sports and trust, about good intentions and unanticipated consequences, about an emerging U.S. star and the ruthless world of big business that now governs the U.S. women’s national team.
In January, as the U.S. women’s team held a month-long pre-World Cup camp in the Los Angeles area, Morgan Brian came to the U.S. kit man, Chris Maxwell, with a request. Brian, who would become the youngest member of this U.S. World Cup team at 22, had just finished her senior season at the University of Virginia, winning her second straight Hermann Trophy as the nation’s top college player.
As the kit man, Maxwell, then 24, had worked with the team for more than a year and had earned the trust of the U.S. players, becoming friends with many of them, including Brian, along the way.
A native of Rochester, N.Y., Maxwell had earned a sports management degree at nearby St. John Fisher College, after which he worked as a soccer operations coordinator for MLS’s Houston Dynamo for a season. He had done good work volunteering at a U.S. Soccer Development Academy showcase in 2012, and as a result the federation had offered him a part-time equipment manager job with the U.S. youth national teams. Maxwell held that position from March 2013 until October of that year, when he was promoted to a full-time job as the kit man for the U.S. women’s national team.
Early in the team’s January 2015 camp, Brian, who had yet to sign with an agent, approached Maxwell and asked if he could connect her to shoe companies in hopes of signing an endorsement deal with one. (Lyle Yorks, who is now Brian’s agent, said neither he nor Brian had any comment to make for this story.)
“Morgan came to me looking for some help reaching out to brands,” says Maxwell. “As the team kit man, it’s my job to make sure the players have everything they need to perform on the field, and I take that to helping them any way I can.”
There was a precedent. Maxwell had done a similar favor last fall when asked by Julie Johnston, another emerging U.S. player who’s starting at the World Cup. Johnston ended up signing with Nike, which has been one of U.S. Soccer’s major sponsors since 1995.
According to Maxwell, Nike didn’t raise any questions about his role with Johnston during or after that process.
Few companies have invested more in the growth of American soccer than Nike. In the year ending on March 31, 2014, U.S. Soccer earned $15.1 million in revenues from Nike. A new deal between U.S. Soccer and Nike went into effect this year and extends until the end of 2022.
In addition to its deal with U.S. Soccer, Nike has personal endorsement contracts with several top U.S. women’s players, including Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Ali Krieger and Carli Lloyd. One of Nike’s first soccer endorsees was Mia Hamm, who has a building on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, named after her. Other U.S. players are sponsored by such brands as Adidas (Becky Sauerbrunn, Christie Rampone, Heather O’Reilly) and Under Armour (Lauren Holiday, Kelley O’Hara).
At Brian’s request, Maxwell says, he contacted people he knew at four companies: Nike, Adidas, Puma and Under Armour. Anything he shared with them from Brian’s perspective would be her words, he told them, not his. During the process, he met in person with a rep from just one company, Nike, and only then at Nike’s request.
Was Maxwell acting as her de facto agent?
He acknowledges there were certainly elements of that in his communications—including, at Brian’s request, using competing offers to try and leverage a better one for her from Nike—but he felt like this was different, since he wasn’t taking any money from Brian (or from Johnston the previous fall) and was not seeking to influence her decision.
“It was never like a secret or that I was hiding what I was doing,” Maxwell says. “The players knew, coaches knew, the general manager knew. And with all the brands I was up front about my involvement being to help Morgan. No one expressed any problems with it, including Nike, who continued to engage me in the [Brian] conversations over the next few weeks.”
By the third week of the January camp, Brian had received endorsement offers from Nike, Adidas and Puma, Maxwell says. But it became increasingly clear that she was leaning toward signing with Adidas, having been disappointed with Nike’s offer. Once Nike was aware that it could lose out on Brian, a Nike sports marketing rep asked for a meeting with Brian during the team’s camp in the L.A. area on January 22. The Nike rep asked that Maxwell attend the meeting.
In the meeting, Maxwell says, Brian communicated to the Nike rep that she wasn’t going to change her mind. She was signing with Adidas. A couple hours later, Maxwell got a phone call. On the other end of the line were Dan Flynn, the CEO of U.S. Soccer, and Tom Wall, the federation’s Director of Equipment Operations. They weren’t happy.
In the phone conversation, Maxwell says, Flynn told Maxwell he had been contacted by Joe Elsmore, Nike’s Director of U.S. Soccer Sports Marketing. As Maxwell recalls the conversation with his bosses, “I was told that Joe Elsmore thought I was being disloyal to the Nike sponsorship of the team and interfering with their business. The first time I heard anything about it being a problem at all wasn’t until Morgan had decided she’d go with Adidas.”
Maxwell, who was earning $35,000 a year from U.S. Soccer, says he told Flynn and Wall his side of the story: That Brian had come to him, not him to her, and asked for his help communicating to the shoe companies; that he never asked for or accepted any money from Brian; that he was helping Brian on his free time, not while on the clock with his kit man duties; and that he had been up front with Nike and the other companies that he was not influencing her decision.
According to Maxwell, Flynn said he would go back to Nike and share Maxwell’s side of the story. Flynn added that Maxwell was to cease and desist from similar actions moving forward.
“I was definitely confused, considering no one had said anything for the first three weeks [of Brian’s talks with the companies],” Maxwell says. “But I listened to what the bosses told me to do and went back to work.”
Maxwell knew his superiors were unhappy but didn’t feel like his job was in danger. He traveled to Europe as planned for the U.S.’s friendlies against France and England in early February, and on the ground everything seemed like it was business as usual with the U.S. delegation.
The U.S. played at France on February 8 and then at England on February 13. On the next day, the U.S. players and staff all boarded planes to fly back to the States. After Maxwell and his assistant had finished packing the van with equipment, he got a call from U.S. Soccer’s Wall, who used to work at Nike. The message, Maxwell says, was simple: You’re fired.
Maxwell says he asked Wall in the phone conversation if his firing was the direct result of his helping Morgan Brian in January and her subsequent decision to sign with Adidas.
“His response,” Maxwell says, “was: ‘Yes.’”
On February 14, the day Maxwell was fired, the U.S. players received an e-mail upon landing in the U.S. saying that Maxwell was no longer with the national team. Maxwell was still in Europe, and his cell phone lit up with messages of concern—and later anger—from many of the U.S. players, including several who are Nike players.
Maxwell returned to the U.S. on February 15 (U.S. Soccer paid for his flight), and he proceeded to clear out his things from the federation’s L.A. office. But he continued to press U.S. Soccer for a written explanation of why he was fired. “U.S. Soccer refused to give me anything in written form,” Maxwell says, “and it wasn’t until a week or more later that I got an HR rep to tell me it was officially filed that I had violated the company’s conflict of interest policy.”
Additionally, Maxwell looked into a potential legal case, but he decided against it, he says, since he was serving as an at-will employee of U.S. Soccer and didn’t have a contract.
“He was terminated for violating company policies,” U.S. Soccer said in a written statement. “We generally do not comment on specifics regarding the termination of an employee, but can state that his dismissal had nothing to do with any player’s decision on selecting a footwear provider. Any indication otherwise is inaccurate. U.S. Soccer athletes have the freedom of choice to sign with the footwear provider they determine is in their best interest. Nike’s, or any other companies’, individual sponsorship with any national team player is independent of U.S. Soccer.”
Nike also issued a statement: “Nike supports and respects the freedom of every professional soccer athlete to negotiate their own personal footwear and equipment sponsorships. We were surprised to be asked by a U.S. Soccer employee to work through him directly on a personal athlete footwear negotiation as it is highly unusual to work through federation staff on an athlete’s personal endorsement arrangement. We sought guidance on that from U.S. Soccer, but we can categorically confirm that we did not ask for anyone to be disciplined or fired for these actions.”
When it came to his job as the kit man, Maxwell received good reviews. Players trusted him.
Former U.S. coach Tom Sermanni, who managed the team from January 2013 to April 2014 and worked directly with Maxwell for six months, says his work as a kit man was strong: “I had no complaints whatsoever with Chris. He did a good job with the team.”
It’s worth asking if perhaps Maxwell should have realized that his work as a de facto player representative had the potential to cause problems, even if he wasn’t being paid. If anything, Maxwell argues, he and Brian were guilty of being naïve, though he contends that shouldn’t have been grounds for him to be fired.
In the end, Maxwell’s good intentions ran afoul of the big business that’s now associated with the U.S. women’s national team. And that’s why he’s not with the team in Canada for the Women’s World Cup.
“It’s a very frustrating end to a job I enjoyed and put a lot into,” says Maxwell, who’s now living in the Houston area, “and a hard one to explain to family and friends who asked why it happened. I’d had a conversation with a Nike rep about an unsigned player [Johnston] looking for a contract last fall, and there was no problem with it.”
“The way I see it, the only difference is one player signed with Nike, and Morgan signed with Adidas.”