Ironic coincidences, racial justice hypocrisy and certificates declaring ownership of one’s self are at the forefront of a lawsuit filed by attorneys for basketball great George Gervin in a New York U.S. District Court last week, accusing Ralph Lauren of using “The Iceman’s” name, image and likeness (NIL) for a shoe brand he never endorsed or approved or even knew about.
Gervin seeks $2 million in damages for the unauthorized creation of the Ralph Lauren’s Gervin Mid, which bears a striking similarity to the Nike Blazer Mid ’77 Vintage shoe, the brand that four decades earlier he wore on the court and in TV commercials for the Just Do It brand. The Blazer bearing “Iceman” in place of the Nike logo on the rear is considered to be the first player-exclusive model shoe.
Nike, which fiercely defends its trademarks against designers and organizations large and small, has not filed a legal complaint against Ralph Lauren.
According to last week’s filing, representatives for the 12-time NBA All-Star with the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls sent the company a cease-and-desist letter in June of 2022 and met with its in-house legal counsel, who told Gervin’s attorney that Ralph Lauren had “coincidentally’ named the shoe the Gervin because it “sounded good.”
“I’m one who comes at this with a very fresh, pure intellectual property eyes, and this is one of those situations where it really just strikes you between the eyes—Ralph Lauren comes out with a retro high top, happening to call it Gervin—how can that be?” Gervin’s attorney Rob Garson told Sourcing Journal. “This is one of those when you see it, you just kind of shake your head and laugh. I just don’t understand, and really, an old athlete like this, he deserves a little more respect in my opinion.”
Wild coincidence leaps up again in the narrative of the court filing as Gervin claims he only found out about the shoe bearing his name in April of 2022 when a friend of his wife’s texted her congratulations on Ralph Lauren naming a shoe after her husband.
Ralph Lauren ceased making the Gervin Mid last year, though it still makes a baby shoe that on its e-commerce site continues to be marketed online.
“They’re still calling it the Gervin Mid Baby Boy footwear shoes, up there as we speak,” Garson said while scrolling the Ralph Lauren website.
Perhaps the height of the irony is that even if the unauthorized NIL usage and the likeness to the Nike Blazer were truly coincidental and unintentional, Ralph Lauren could not have found a much worse adversary to have accidentally offended.
“I have worked hard throughout my career to build my name and reputation, and I will not allow any company to exploit it without my permission,” Gervin said in an official statement. “I am taking legal action to protect my rights and ensure that consumers are not misled.”
Since his retirement from the NBA in 1990, Gervin, the gangly 6-foot-7 swingman most associated with perfecting and mythologizing the long-range “finger roll,” has been actively involved in coaching and supporting young athletes, even creating his own tuition-free prep school for at-risk students. In the years leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision allowing amateur athletes to benefit financially from their name, image and likeness, Gervin was a staunch advocate for amateur-level competitors getting paid.
Since the decision, Gervin has gone into a partnership with a pair of NIL-focused sports agencies and a Web3 ecosystem program to become the lead spokesperson for the “I Own Me” campaign. Through its digital “Declaration Certificates,” “I Own Me” claims to be “the only way for athletes to protect and monetize their personal brands and content,” it said in a statement declaring Gervin to be its spokesperson.
A cynic might look at the publicity Gervin is driving to the “I Own Me” campaign, in addition to his other projects through this lawsuit. But Garson sees the coincidences and ironies more as proof that Gervin is being chosen by and for the moment.
“What he’s really into here, one of the big things is, ‘look, if this can happen to me, it can happen to anybody. What’s remarkably important is protecting athletes and their NIL and their digital footprint,” Garson told Sourcing Journal. “These younger athletes get more exposure online, they’re social media influencers themselves, but there is a downside with publicity and notoriety. Really the bottom line I’m seeking to drive here is that George’s situation with Ralph Lauren is a perfect example of how large companies can take advantage of athletes’ identities.”
According to the “I Own Me” release, Gervin is also about to launch his own apparel line, book and documentary.
“It’s not as if it’s some great conspiracy: please rip off my name and put it on a retro basketball sneaker,” Garson said rhetorically to rebut any notion that Gervin is suing for the promotional benefits. “What old athletes like him have is their name, image and likeness. What other jobs can older athletes have? Coaches, pundits on sports shows and then they’re just supposed to sit back and let people make a buck off them?” Garson said.
Throughout the 18-page complaint, Garson peppers Ralph Lauren with accusations of racial hypocrisy. He said he believes racial animus played a part in the decision to launch the shoe.
“Would this have happened to Tom Brady, or another white athlete of yesteryear? No,” Garson said. “[Ralph Lauren] probably thought [Gervin] was dead.”
Representatives from Ralph Lauren did not respond to requests for comment.