Over the past 18 years, James Keady has traveled to hundreds of campuses around the United States.
His goal — to educate students about the sweatshop conditions of Nike factories around the world.
He asks students to get involved, to learn more, to organize to pressure Nike to do the right thing.
But only recently has Keady asked the students to do something else.
And if a Nike boycott takes hold on campuses around the country, James Keady might be the reason why.
Last week, Keady was at Georgetown University, giving his campus program. It’s called — Behind the Swoosh: Sweatshops and Social Justice.
“There was an athlete at my presentation at Georgetown,” Keady told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “She went home and educated her teammates about what was going on, she showed them my short film. And they took the action they took on Tuesday morning. They taped over their Nike swooshes.”
Was there any press on that?
“One of the students tweeted it out,” Keady said. “I retweeted it. It got some press. The Georgetown paper wrote about it. There were some online publications that put some stuff out. It’s not a major story. Why? It’s not the men’s basketball team. If the men’s basketball team covers their logos, now you have a national story.”
“Now, Nike has a problem. So does Georgetown. Look at what happened at Missouri when the football team said — you don’t address the racial problem on campus and get rid of the president, we are not going to play. All the student activism that had been building to that point did not have the leverage that 30 mostly black athletes had when they said — we are not playing BYU on Saturday.”
“There was a million dollar penalty that the school would have to pay to BYU.”
“That’s the power that student athletes have. And I’m hoping they will use that power in this case. It’s the student athletes that drive the multi-billion industry that is college sports. No cooperation, no money. They have power to change the situation. That’s the seed that I’ve been planting for the last 18 years of my life.”
A boycott of Nike has been debated by activists over the years. But worker unions in Southeast Asia, where most of Nike apparel is made, have not until recently been in favor of a boycott — for fear of losing work.
But Keady says that is changing.
“Up until recently, the workers were not ready for a boycott,” Keady says. “They are now. They are asking for a boycott. If it is effective, there could be a dip in production which means there could be job loss.”
There is now an international call for a boycott of Nike?
“The workers in Indonesia want a boycott.”
Have they called for it?
“Not in the sense of holding a press conference and calling for a boycott. In my conversations with the leading trade unionists, they are asking for a boycott. If I can get back into Indonesia, I want to talk about putting some shape and strategy to this.”
“If the students are going to make the decision to boycott Nike and not buy and wear their products, I’m advising them — don’t do it in a vacuum. I encourage them to write to Nike, tell Nike they are doing it and why they are doing it. I give them the personal email address of Mark Parker, the CEO of Nike.”
What should be the demand of the boycott?
“For me it would be pay a living wage — three times the minimum wage — to their workers and give documentation that that is happening.”
“I ask the students to boycott Nike. And if their university has an endorsement deal, I ask the students to cover up the logos, to cover up the Nike jumpman logos, to stop endorsing Nike. Stop being a marketing agent for Nike. Cover up the logos. And if the athletes do that, that’s a national story.”
Why the absolute obedience of student athletes?
“Over the years they have said — I’m afraid of losing my scholarship, I’m afraid of losing my spot on the team.”
Keady knows about such things. In fact, he was the last collegiate athlete to stand up to Nike and just say no.
In 1997, Keady was a coach for the St. John’s Division I national champion soccer team. But he refused to wear the Nike logo — and was dismissed from the team.
He filed a lawsuit against Nike and the school. (He lost on appeal.) The case gained national press attention — and Keady went off to Indonesia to learn first hand about working conditions there.
“In the summer of 2000, I moved to Indonesia to live with Nike factory workers,” Keady says. “I tried to survive on that Nike sweatshop wage of $1.25 a day. I lost 25 pounds in a month trying to do that in a rat-infested hellhole outside of the capital.”
“I met the mostly young women who made the products that I wore as an athlete for years. I never thought twice about who they were and what their lives were like. And I promised them that I would go home and tell their stories. I thought I was going to do that for five or six months, but I ended up doing it full time for 15 years now. I have spoken at more than 500 schools in 46 different states and in three different countries. I went down to brief members of Congress in Washington. I was brought to Nike’s campus to brief their top executives. I was brought in by mutual fund advisors and directors. I was brought in by countless university administrations to talk about Nike sweatshops. I have been back to Indonesia many times over the past 15 years.”
Keady made a movie about his first trip to Indonesia — it’s called Behind the Swoosh.
[For the complete q/a transcript of the Interview with James Keady see page 29 Corporate Crime Reporter 45(9), November 23, 2015, print edition only].