As the University of California's football team suffered through a dismal 3-9 season last year, athletics director Sandy Barbour had another concern - ankle tape.
Two days after a victory at Washington State moved the Golden Bears to 3-4, Barbour e-mailed equipment manager Dave Moosman and head athletic trainer Ryan Cobb about several players having their ankles spatted during the game.
Spatting is a common practice in football, especially in the NFL where about half of players do it on a weekly basis for additional support, to restrict motion in the ankle and prevent sprains - or just as a fashion statement. The telltale sign is an ankle with tape over the sock, shoe and - most important - the shoe's logo.
That's where it becomes a source of conflict in college football among universities, players and shoe companies.
In Cal's case, Barbour asked Moosman and Cobb to review the terms of the school's Nike contract. "I believe that even in the case of injury, we are limited in the number of shoes that may be 'spatted' for any given game," she wrote.
In fact, the school's apparel contract does restrict spatting as it does for virtually every school with contracts with the biggest shoe suppliers - Nike, Adidas and Under Armour.
USA TODAY Sports obtained the apparel contracts for 54 public schools that were in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference last season. (Per state public records laws, Penn State and Pittsburgh were not required to supply contracts.) Of those contracts, 22 did not allow spatting and 32 provided for it in cases where it is medically necessary.
That those agreements inhibit the taping of ankles, including financial penalties on multimillion dollar contracts, illustrates what is seen as the ever-expanding influence of shoe companies in collegiate sports. It also raises questions about the release of players' private health information and calls attention to the players' lack of control over their own bodies.
With the NCAA battling multiple lawsuits regarding players' inability to profit off their likenesses and the long-term health effects from football, the ankle joint becomes where commercial and medical interests can be at odds.
Adidas and Under Armour declined comment, and a number of universities did not make their athletic trainers available. Representatives for Nike did not respond to multiple requests for an interview or to e-mailed questions.
But Barbour told USA TODAY Sports that when she sent that e-mail last year, she was seeking to bring new staff members up to date on the school's obligations.
"First and foremost, the issue is going to be about student health and student welfare and safety and medical protection," she said. "But there's also no doubt that there are times that it's requested that it may not have been a medical or a health protection basis. And that's what our medical staff is there to opine on."
Schools receive millions in rights fees, compensation for coaches and administrators as well as apparel and equipment for these deals, but it's not as simple as lacing up the cleats. With shoe companies financing contracts for the exposure that outfitting a major program can provide with 12 regular-season TV appearances, their best interest is to have the logos on their shoes visible.
"The red flag for me is anytime you put economic incentive potentially balanced against health and welfare of the student-athlete," said Mike Gilleran, executive director of the Santa Clara University Institute of Sports Law and Ethics.
"We're calling Oregon the University of Nike, and we're accepting of that," he said of the Ducks' close ties to the shoe giant. "Why should we be surprised that there's all these detailed contracts involving spatting?"
Gilleran isn't alone in wondering whether restrictions in the contract could lead to pressure to make medical decisions based on the school's obligations to a shoe supplier.
He lays out a scenario of an athletics director under pressure because attendance is down, a losing coach is on the hot seat and his or her job is on the line.
"The last thing I want to hear is that big shoe company is pissed at me because I've got too many skill-position players covered up," said Gilleran, who was previously the commissioner of the West Coast Conference. "Would I be of the mind to visit the trainer?"
The apparel contracts obtained by USA TODAY Sports typically outlined spatting as being inconsistent with the purposes of the agreement. Arkansas' contract with Nike cited a "zero tolerance" approach for spatting unless it was medically necessary. Mississippi State's contract with Adidas prohibits spatting but notes "(e)xceptions to this provision require written approval by (A)didas."
"They sold the rights to the shoe, not the foot," said Sonny Vaccaro, a former shoe company executive who pioneered these sorts of agreements when Nike signed Miami to an all-sport deal in 1987.
"It would not be a logical expectation of the companies to want spatting," he added. "That's what you're paying for. You're paying for them to see their foot."
While athletic trainers disagree on how much spatting is needed and its effectiveness, most say ankle taping or bracing can help prevent one of the most common injuries in the sport - the sprain. Athletic trainers at Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska and South Carolina said they require all players to have their ankles taped or brace beneath their shoes.
Players request that their ankles be spatted more often than is medically necessary, they said, with reasons ranging from poor shoe fit to thinking it looks cool. Many seek the stability and support of a spat.
There is research to support that notion. A 2009 study published in the "International Journal of Exercise Science" studied 17 subjects during warm-ups and 60 minutes of touch football and found spatting to be more effective than taping at limiting range of motion. A 2011 study from researchers at Drake University published in the same journal found spatting and taping together to be as stable as bracing.
Several athletic trainers said spatting would not typically be the best option before a game. But if a player is hurt during a game, spatting might be the quickest solution to get him back on the field.
"It's probably going to do more than if you weren't taped," said Mark Mayer, the head football athletic trainer at Nebraska. "But it wouldn't be my first line of defense against trying to prevent an ankle injury."
Although many of the contracts prohibit it, a player with one injured ankle might get both spatted to prevent opposing teams from targeting the injured ankle. Some contracts restrict the number of ankles that can be spatted without penalty, while others restrict which players can be spatted. In some contracts, the number of skill-position players that can be spatted is restricted.
Mayer said he typically spats 6-8 players in a game, while Ron Courson, the head football athletic trainer at Georgia, said he currently has two players that need to be spatted. Randy Cohen, the head football athletic trainer at Arizona, also said he typically spats two players who have chronic ankle problems, but about one-fifth of the team requires a specialty tape job that is not normal prophylactic taping. Nebraska is sponsored by Adidas, while Georgia and Arizona are Nike-sponsored schools.
"We're sympathetic to who's sponsoring us as well, so we do our best to keep it at a bare bones minimum as far as who we're spatting," said Mayer.
But that doesn't apply to all schools. Utah is one of a handful sponsored by Under Armour. Because the company's cleats typically have the logo on the toe of the shoe, spatting is less of an issue. Kyle Brennan, the senior associate AD for administration, said any player who asks to be spatted has it done.
At another Under Armour school, South Carolina head football athletic trainer Clint Haggard spats when there is a medical reason. That currently includes 24 players, but Haggard said it's typically closer to 10.
"I think (Under Armour does) a good job of talking with us and listening to what we have to say as athletic trainers much more so than a lot of companies do," he said. "As long as you're doing it for medical reasons, they can't say anything about it. They're not influencing what I'm doing medically."
In the NFL, those restrictions do not exist. Players are only limited if they have individual deals with a shoe supplier.
Mike Ryan, head athletic trainer and physical therapist for the Jacksonville Jaguars, said 50%-60% of players are spatted for each game. On a 53-man roster, that's roughly 30 players per game.
"Any additional stability we can add to those ankles is going to keep those athletes safer," Ryan said.
All of the collegiate contracts have consequence for excessive spatting. At its most basic, that can mean termination after the shoe company has notified the school and the spatting continues. In other cases, that includes a percentage reduction in the base compensation.
Alabama's contract with Nike allows for a reduction of the school's base compensation of up to 5% per game in which five or more players who take the field are spatted before the game or a reduction of 2% for each player who appears in a game after Nike provides written notice that he should not be spatted. Nike contracts for Cal, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Washington, among others, include the same language.
Other contracts call for a reduction of 10% of a school's base compensation after it has been warned of excessive spatting, 15% for the second occurrence and 25% for the third. That can be cumulative, meaning a school could lose 50 percent of its shoe money for spatting.
With apparel contracts bringing in millions of dollars, spatting could lead to a big financial hit. Adidas schools Michigan and UCLA had base compensations of $3.8 million and $3.5 million, respectively, in 2012-13. Kentucky, a Nike school, brought in $1.8 million, while Auburn had the highest base of the Under Armour schools at $1.75 million.
"They usually don't have a big problem unless it's a huge routine thing where all of the sudden they watch the game and you have 15 guys out there with tape over their shoes," said Cohen. "If it starts to become a chronic thing where it's multiple guys, they say, 'Is this necessary?'"
Although the biggest schools have equipment managers, sometimes that conversation happens with the head coach - who has a financial incentive. Coaches typically receive money from shoe companies in exchange for wearing the apparel and making appearances at that company's events.
"All they gotta do is threaten the head coach that we're going to take some of your money from your contract away," said Cohen. "If the head coach decides to do something, it's gonna get done."
Former Cal players recalled that the athletic training staff would try to limit spatting. Receiver Keenan Allen, now a rookie with the San Diego Chargers, injured his ankle and required surgery in the spring of 2012 before his final season at Cal. Because of the injury, he had his ankles taped and shoe spatted last year.
"I'd just tell them, 'I gotta spat. It's just something I gotta do,'" he said.
In cases where players request to be spatted because of a poor fit, the shoe companies will work with equipment managers to find different shoes. In some instances, custom shoes are made.
If players cannot find a comfortable shoe made by the company their school is contracted with, he is allowed to wear shoes from another company. In that case, he must spat out the competitor's logo.
The spatting language in the schools' contracts with their shoe suppliers also ties into the simmering player rights issues in college football now. U.S. District Court judge Claudia Wilken denied a motion from the NCAA to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit brought by current and former college athletes, including former UCLA basketball standout Ed O'Bannon.
The case challenges athletes' ability to profit off their names and likenesses, as schools and the NCAA have. While spatting doesn't pertain to a player's image, it is another example of players being used for profit without input or a cut of the revenue.
"It's not like players got any tangible benefit from the sudden use of their bodies to advertise for the shoe companies. The question should be raised about whether or not it's appropriate," said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association. "The shoe companies have not done anything that the schools have not allowed them to do."
The third-party influence in what players can have done with their ankles seems to be unique. A player who recovered from a knee injury and felt more comfortable wearing a brace wouldn't be restricted from doing that by a apparel provider.
"Why can't the athlete have the assurance that he can do what he wants with his body?" Vaccaro said. "Millions of dollars are at stake with these athletes if they're injured. They have every right to do what they want."
Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than NFL players who have eschewed shoe sponsorships because they would rather spat. Chargers center Nick Hardwick was sponsored by Nike until injuring his foot in 2006. Spatting made his shoes more secure on his feet, but the company did not want its logo covered.
"The Nike money in relation to the money you're paid is, first off, it's not real money," he said. "It's shoes and stuff that I don't really wear their products that often. For me, it was a no-brainer. I'd much rather stay on the field and play more games."
A HIPAA ISSUE TOO
The issue of player rights is also a potential legal one as it pertains to their medical records.
In his e-mail chain with Barbour a year ago, Cobb raised another question about HIPAA concerns. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act was created to protect people's private health information. Players sign a form which allows their school to release information to any number of parties from their coaches, teammates, faculty advisers, parents and even the news media.
Among the 54 schools whose HIPAA release forms for 2012-13 were obtained through public records requests by USA TODAY Sports, none included its shoe supplier as one that could receive health information about players.
Yet 20 of the contracts require the schools to provide notification of players who will be spatted before the games, often with a letter from a physician or the athletic trainer.
HIPAA experts say whether schools are considered covered entities under the law would vary based on several factors. But since some schools already delineate other parties in HIPAA releases, it would behoove them to add the shoe supplier.
"They should very definitely be getting an authorization that discloses to the athlete that this is going on and setting forth the minimal amount of information that's going to be provided," said Sue Murphy, a counsel at Thomas & Knight in Houston. "It absolutely is an authorization that needs to happen if they are covered by HIPAA."
The inclusion of the news media in those releases also might not clear universities of committing a HIPAA violation by notifying shoe companies of injured players needing to be spatted. It could depend on the sequence of events, according to Bill Maruca, a partner at Fox Rothschild LLP in Pittsburgh.
"If they tell the shoe company first without releasing it to the media, I don't think that's going to protect them," Maruca said.
It's unclear how strictly the shoe companies require schools to comply with the pregame notice. None of the trainers interviewed by USA TODAY Sports said they provided a list in advance of the game. In his e-mail response to Barbour, Cobb said Nike had never provided a way for Cal to submit medical information about which players need to be spatted.
"If they have a question, they'll give us a call," said Courson.
With competing interests - the shoe company to have its logos seen on television, the school to have the shoe company's money and the players to do what they want with their ankles for any reason - one contract offers a potential solution.
Should South Carolina players need to be spatted in a way that covers up the Under Armour logos, the company ensured it would get the exposure it paid for with decals.
Even that comes with issues. Haggard hasn't used the decals in the five years he's been at South Carolina. He previously worked at Nike schools, where the head athletic trainer would spat players and Haggard would draw the "swoosh" logo on with a marker.
"Other places that I've been, I know the company didn't like us drawing on the shoes," he said. "But I think I can draw that logo pretty dadgum good."
Rachel Axon, USA TODAY Sports