There are at least two ways to look at the University of Kentucky's new deal with Nike. One is that it means a great deal of money. Another is that UK's newfound millions may be the product of third-world misery.
The Nike swoosh stands for extravagant sneakers and execrable sweatshops. Air Jordans and assembly line abuse. When universities form partnerships with the planet's most powerful sports marketing company, they are advised to examine their consciences as well as their contracts.
"The world that Nike and (CEO) Philip Knight represent is the opposite of human rights and civilized values," says Rush Rehm, a Stanford professor and activist. "You countenance it by looking the other way."
UK Athletics Director C.M. Newton has heard some of the horror stories. So has Ohio State AD Andy Geiger. They have committed their institutions to lucrative endorsement deals with Nike, and claim to be interested in progress as well as profits. Much of what they have seen lately, though, is scandalous.
On March 8, International Women's Day, 56 women employed at a Vietnam factory making Nikes were ordered to run laps around the building until 12 of them fainted. Their offense: failure to wear regulation footwear.
Last month, a protest by thousands of workers at a Nike subcontractor in Indonesia escalated into a riot. Cars were burned and offices ransacked. The grievance: a dispute over a negotiated raise in a country where the minimum wage is $2.50. Per day.
Looking the other way
Nike does not own these factories, nor can it be expected to control the labor policies and local customs of foreign countries. Yet in its search for low-cost production lines, the company is often accused of turning a blind eye to abusive practices and starvation wages.
Philip Knight says Nike pays its foreign workers more than what they could make in other jobs, and that the company turns away more applicants than it could hire. Vizhier Corpuz, a Nike public relations manager, said the company has been a leader in developing anti-sweatshop policies and provides each of its factories a code of conduct that forbids abuses such as child and forced labor.
Yet in a March report on Nike manufacturing in Vietnam, American businessman Thuyen Nguyen calculated workers could not afford three basic meals on their salaries of $1.60 per day, much less other necessities. He compared the operations to "military boot camps," and cited multiple instances of corporal punishment.
Workers who were deemed too talkative had their mouths taped shut. Supervisors struck women over the head for shoddy workmanship. Publicly, Nike has been horrified. It has suspended its line manager in Vietnam, hired former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young to investigate foreign operations, and persuaded Newton it will attack problems in a "pro-active" manner.
"We have met with Nike about it, and we've expressed the hope that Nike is addressing those issues," Ohio State's Geiger said. "They're very aware of the sensitivities. I honestly believe that they're working on addressing them."
Take the money and help
To believe otherwise would be to consent to the plunder of poorer nations. Universities in business with Nike must ask themselves if they are really interested in reform, or just revenue? Geiger said Ohio State's five-year deal with Nike is worth close to $10 million, which is a lot of loot to pass up on principle.
"Sure, (reports of abuses) give us pause," Geiger said. "But I'm not really in favor of Ohio State or Kentucky or anybody else not participating with Nike. I'd rather participate and clean up the problems at the other end . . . I believe him (Knight) to be a person who is concerned about these kinds of issues."
If Knight is concerned, Rehm says, it is mainly because bad publicity hurts sales and erodes stock prices. Some men must be hit in the wallet before they can feel another's pain.
"One of the ways to get to them is through the market," Rehm said. "If enough people stop buying shoes that are literally dripping with blood, they might stop."