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Nike and Colin Kaepernick: Fronting the Bigots’ Team

Photo Source Bill Smith | CC BY 2.0

If you have a world-class grievance– and Colin Kaepernick certainly does– what a godsend it must’ve been for him to get that call from Nike!  (The endorsement relationship goes back at least 5 years.) No other company has the experience of conveying emotional uplift and inspirational stories than this sneaker giant.

In the early 90s, according to a Goldman Sachs report on retail sales in the athletic goods sector, Nike shoes were selling at full-retail almost 2/3 of the time. The nearest competitor was Fila. At 5%! Pure marketing genius and the billion-plus per year spending to go world-wide with it.

There is a dark side to that demand-creation juggernaut, however. I’d like Colin to listen to one Newark store owner describing his customers:

Most of the people in this store, their lives are shit; their homes in the projects are shit — and it’s not like they don’t know it. There’s no drop-in center around here anymore and no local place to go that they can think of as their own, so they come to my store. They buy these shoes just like other kinds of Americans buy fancy cars or a new suit. It’s all about trying to find some status in the world. But the truth is, I do get weary and worn down from it all. I’m always forced to face the fact that I make my money from poor people. A lot of them live on welfare. Sometimes a mother will come in here with a kid and the kid is dirty and poorly-dressed but the kid wants a 120-bucks-a-pair of shoes and that stupid mother buys them for him. I can feel the kid’s inner need – this desire to own these things and have the feelings that go with them but it hurts me that this is the way things are. I’ve been spending a lot of time lately wishing that the world was a better place than it is.” (from Donald Katz’ book, Just Do It)

Believe it or not, one piece of over-the-top Nike advertising actually landed them at the Supreme Court!  To fight well-documented accounts of cheating and worker abuse in Asian contract-factories, they took out full-page ads in newspapers across the country to say this problem was fixed. Activists called it the Nike “right to lie” case. Once the court realized that it was being called upon to make a differentiation between “commercial speech” and First Amendment-protected speech, they punted.  Sent back to California for retrial, the case was settled with 2 self-described “public interest” lawyers pocketing an amount of money the public will never know.  That venal deal saved Nike from a potentially devastating “discovery” process and upended any opportunity to actually make gains for those cheated and abused for decades.  That was 15 years ago today.

Colin was just in middle school when the sweatshop story was hot.  It got cooled-down quickly when Bill Clinton saw it as an implicit criticism of his unfettered free trade policies. (He leaned on some union friends to set up a talk-shop to quiet the controversy.)  Nike founder, Phil Knight, was so incensed at one New York Times columnist who wrote three critical columns in 1996, that he demanded and received a meeting with the New York Times editorial board.  The board assured Knight that the columnist could continue to write whatever he pleased, but there was never another sweatshop story involving Nike.

You and Serena and MJ and Spike Lee have much more in common with those cheated and abused Asian workers than you do with the Nike crew, Colin. Listen to this Zicklin (CUNY) business school professor on “expropriation” and buyers’ (the big brands) “bigotry”: One of the most refreshingly honest voices in the global worker rights field is Prakash Sethi.  For years he was the architect of Mattel’s supply chain code-and-monitoring apparatus and has done consulting work in this field for several other Fortune 500 firms.  He says that the major global players – the World Bank, OECD countries and the International Labor Organization – have failed to apply pressure on low-cost producing countries that do not protect workers’ human rights or health and safety.  He has also called on corporations to pay restitution to developing-world workers for ‘years of expropriation’ enabled by corrupt, repressive regimes.  (Particularly poignant is his brusque assertion in the New York Times that ‘bigotry’ was at the root of most companies’ refusal to even try to grapple with some of these issues.)  Mattel ended its supplier-factory monitoring in 2009 and there were no untoward consequences, such as negative press reports.  It was the cover-up no one called for, so no one missed it when it was gone.

So, while it might sound harsh, you’ve joined the bigots’ team, Colin.

We are told that consumers want corporations to take stands on social issues. I think they should just make a good product, sell it at a fair price, bargain with their workers and quit marketing to kids!

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