Domestic players in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) are being forced to wear sneakers made by local brand Li Ning in the new season, which kicked off last week—and some Nike-sponsored athletes are apparently not happy about it.
Behind the sneaker ban is the CBA’s exclusive kit deal—which covers everything from jerseys to shoes to socks—with Li Ning, the sportswear empire started by China’s former gymnastics champion by the same name. While NBA players traditionally sign their own shoe deals, the CBA owns that right for every single Chinese athlete playing in it.
On Nov. 2, Yi Jianlian, who was recently waived by the Los Angeles Lakers to rejoin his hometown team, Guangdong, made his debut in the new CBA season. At the beginning of the second quarter, Yi took off his Li Ning sneakers on the court and asked for a substitution, suggesting that he felt pain in his feet. After the referees refused to let him back in the game wearing Nike shoes, Yi went straight back to the locker room and only reappeared courtside in the late third quarter. This time, the referees let him in wearing shoes by his sponsor, Nike.
“I’m not saying Li Ning shoes are not good, they are a good company,” the 29-year-old power forward said in an after-match interview (link in Chinese), “but my feet really hurt.” Yi explained that only the Nike shoes designed for him fit his feet well.
The sponsorship deal between Li Ning and the CBA, worth two billion yuan (around $300 million) over five years, ends at the end of this season. Previously, a limited number of Chinese players were allowed to wear other sponsors’ sneakers in the court, but only with logos covered up and after paying a fee. But the CBA has closed that loophole in the new season, a move read by some (link in Chinese) as a way to impress Li Ning into extending their sponsorship.
The CBA announced on Nov. 3 (link in Chinese) that Yi will be suspended for one game, and the Guangdong team has been fined 50,000 yuan (around $7000), according to the league’s regulations.
Yi is not the first Nike-sponsored athlete to protest against the Chinese league’s decision. After their season openers, young centers Zhou Qi and Wang Zhelin took to social media to denounce the sneaker ban. Zhou wrote on China’s Twitter-esque service Weibo (link in Chinese, registration required), ”Why am I deprived of the right to wear my own shoes?… I only sincerely hope that my feet can be protected in games.”
This article was updated with the CBA’s punishment of Yi and his team.