LARAMIE – If he had his druthers, no one outside University of Wyoming's equipment room would even know who J.D. Jordan is.
If he’s doing his job correctly, he isn’t noticed. Whether it was because of pride or anger, however, he couldn’t let this one go so easily.
Jordan, 28, is the director of athletic equipment operations for Wyoming athletics, with an emphasis on football. Helmets, shoulder pads, jerseys and face masks? Those go through Jordan and his two full-time football staff members, plus a handful of student managers. Compression shorts, game day polo shirts and laundry? Those go through Jordan, too.
If there is equipment related to UW athletics, Jordan likely has his fingerprints on it. Above all else, safety is his and his staff’s priority. Puff pieces about how many gallons of Gatorade a team brings with it on road trips don’t necessarily cover the gist of what equipment managers do, Jordan said.
“I’m sure that anybody can be trained to fit a helmet. It’s not like we’re doing black magic with helmets,” Jordan said with a laugh. “But we’re trained to do it, that is our primary point of emphasis in our field is the safety aspect.”
So when a November 2019 article ran in Sports Illustrated about the perils of equipment managers and the alleged conflict of interests they have with helmet companies, Jordan and his peers felt they could no longer sit back in the shadows.
They had to get out in the forefront.
In essence, the story details the football helmet industry, the innovations made over the past decade in safety and the subsequent ethics of marketing that goes along with it. There’s a major section in the story, however, that mentions football equipment managers. Specifically, it says that managers often make decisions on which helmets their teams will use based on preexisting relationships with companies, rather than safety. Per the article, one anonymous team employee referred to it as, “the equipment manager cartel.”
One paragraph reads:
“Equipment managers … serve as power brokers when it comes to deciding which helmet a team will embrace, at any level. ‘The relationship between those managers and the big helmet companies is one of the most important and, at times, insidious features of this industry that no one really understands,’ says SI’s industry insider, suggesting, too, that (companies’) relationships with these guys can create all sorts of means to influence their decisions.’”
As one can imagine, that didn’t sit particularly well with Jordan and his contemporaries. For one thing, Jordan said, he doesn’t deal with a single helmet company; very few teams do, he said. Helmets can cost upward of $1,000, depending on the specifications needed for the player, and Jordan said his staff will not cut costs or make deals because he likes certain equipment representatives more than others. If a player needs a specific attachment to his shoulder pads because of a preexisting injury, Jordan will make sure it gets done.
As is the case with any profession, relationships are important; more important, however, is the safety of his players, and the insinuation that money and being buddy-buddy with companies influences decisions felt like a cheap shot and broad generalization of a field where the vast majority of people try to do the right thing, he said. Being an equipment manager isn’t just a hobby. It’s Jordan’s passion and livelihood, something he has worked toward since an injury in high school forced him to quit playing football.
While Sports Illustrated’s story might be true in some places, Jordan and his peers thought it was unfair to group an entire profession together and paint it in a negative light.
“I guess (it’s) a pride thing. I mean, we, as an industry, pride ourselves on working very hard and putting the athletes first, and having this be out there really bothered a lot of people,” Jordan said. “This is not at all how it works; like, this is not a true inside look at the industry.”
There were a few options: one was to sit back and let it go. That was not really in the equation, though. Another option was to write a letter to the author of the article, putting their side of the story out there, which the president of the Athletic Equipment Managers Association did. Jordan said the rebuttal was never published, though, making it seem like somewhat of a worthless exercise. The final choice was to do something about it, to make a positive out of something that had rocked his industry’s world.
So, he did.
Jordan reached out to one of the manufacturers UW uses for its gear, Image Apparel Solutions, and said he wanted to make a couple of “Equipment Cartel” shirts for an upcoming conference. In a way, it was a sassy retort to the initial story.
The president of Image Apparel Solutions, Tim Kelliher, took it a step further: why not create a bunch of gear and donate the money raised to charity? Kelliher offered to produce the apparel and donate 100% of the profits toward a charity, and they eventually decided on St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
Kelliher has helped with fundraisers previously, and said he does about two a year. It’s an important cause for him: as a 13-year cancer survivor, he understands the impact that giving back can have, and he saw Jordan’s frustration as something that could be spun into a positive.
“The way people rallied around me being sick years ago … if I get a chance to give back, I’m going to give something back … it’s the right thing to do,” Kelliher said.
Additionally, having worked with Jordan and many other equipment managers, Kelliher felt that the Sports Illustrated article portrayed the profession in an unfair light. Jordan’s job is based on keeping people safe and doing whatever it takes to ensure that; he and his peers deserved to be known for something positive, Kelliher thought.
“They are the nicest group of guys … they are grounded, they truly work their asses off behind the scene … it was a great misrepresentation,” Kelliher said. “The ‘Cartel’ thing would have been cute, but I said, ‘You can really do something with this that makes it positive, that really represents the core of what you’re about … (this fundraiser) kind of emphasizes what kind of people you guys are.”
While St. Jude doesn’t have a wing in Wyoming itself, it does have patients from across the state. And to have money raised, regardless of the amount, sent a powerful message. St. Jude does not take money from patients, so fundraisers are how it survives, according to St. Jude regional executive director of field development Tara Moyer.
“Our hospital may not be in Wyoming, but our research is,” Moyer said. “We’re so fortunate to have support throughout Wyoming through various fundraisers and community partnerships. … Fundraisers like this are very important to not only keep the hospital open, but to increase the awareness of St. Jude.”
So far, Jordan has raised $1,375, and other equipment managers around the country have shared links to the store and make up the vast majority of the sales. What started off as an exercise in gentle retaliation has turned into something much more positive, which has been Jordan’s goal the whole time.
“If we can attach something good to what was negative for our profession … I feel pretty good about flipping it on its head,” Jordan said. “We’re not only able to talk about us, because we’re not entirely comfortable talking about us, but we’re also able to do something good for somebody else with it.
“It’s not about what I’m doing. It’s about raising money for kids and changing the narrative as a profession. … what we do was not what that article represented, and we’re going to raise some money for charity and kind of … reform the narrative, reform that perception, hopefully.”
While the online store is set to close Sunday, there is still a possibility that Jordan will take more orders and produce more “Equipment Cartel” gear. And that’s fine with Kelliher.
“We’re going to do them until there isn’t a demand for them,” Kelliher said. “At some point, you have to look at this and say, ‘It’s my turn to give back.’ And everyone here is in.”