What does exclusivity actually mean in endorsement contracts? This is a question that can get athletes in trouble and lead to contract termination, sadness and all around bad juju if the breach is bad enough. While it seems obvious to, for example, not wear running shoes from your sponsors competitors…what about socks? What about at that fun run that you did for charity? What about that run in Patagonia? Every contract can be slightly different so it goes without saying that you need to read your exclusivity clauses carefully and make sure that your portfolio of sponsors do not cause conflicts.

Almost all endorsement contracts have some form of exclusivity clause embedded that you need to understand. (If they don’t, you should be suspicious.) They typically read like this:

ATHLETE shall wear and/or use exclusively “BRAND X Products” while participating in all athletic or athletic-related activities, including but not limited to training, all competitions and related press conferences, and all other occasions during with ATHLETE wears athletic shoes or apparel or poses for athletic-related photographs.

Doesn’t sound too bad right? Unfortunately, there’s a lot of gray area in this clause. As a general rule, think of this clause as always being overly restrictive rather than permissive and act accordingly. Remember (or Google) when Michael Jordan wore a US flag over the logo of the team kit when he won the Olympic gold medal with the Dream Team in Barcelona. The kit was not Nike brand apparel and he had a head-to-toe endorsement deal. You can call MJ the greatest of all time or the most paranoid, but he knew not try to be cute with such a lucrative sponsorship even on the Olympic stage. Us mere mortals should see this as the gold standard of honoring the exclusivity clause. (See what I did there?)

As a second general rule, assume that this clause covers more than it does. If you haven’t gotten clarification from the sponsor or if you’re just unsure whether your sponsorship covers socks as well as footwear, best to not wear non-branded socks unless you’re sure. And definitely, don’t enter into negotiations with a new sponsor without that clarification. Doing so is a very clear violation of the exclusivity clause and could lead to a breach of contract. Life lesson: get clarification of what’s covered…preferably before you sign the endorsement contract.

Athletes are extensions of marketing departments for brands and, in some cases, their greatest ambassadors. If you think that your sponsor might get tweaked if they see a photo of you in non-branded gear, don’t Just Do It.