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The Swoosh at Carolina:Just Do It or Just Don't Do It?

by Miriam Sander


The mass media manipulates the purchasing decisions of millions by lodging sound bites and image bites into the conscious and unconscious minds of Americans. The Nike swoosh is just such a powerful image bite, which probably symbolizes many things to many people, but is often identified with the empowering concept of the power of positive thinking. The swoosh = "Just Do It." You buy a hat with the swoosh and you are buying a positive energy force.

The power and dominance of corporate America within our culture is nothing new.

What is relatively new, and much in the news lately, is the infiltration of corporate America, along with its advertising wizardry, into the heart and pocketbook of academia. And it turns out that the pocketbook of academia is found in college athletic programs. What other college activity attracts the buying potential of a large television audience on a Saturday afternoon or evening? The spotlight has come to this relatively new interaction between corporate and academic America largely due to student activism. For example, recent attention to the $7.1 million contract between Nike and UNC has been intense, and it has been covered in the local media extensively. UNC students have joined their voices with those around the nation who have questioned the labor practices at Nike's overseas factories.

The students formed the Nike Awareness Campaign which has succeeded in getting the attention of both former Coach Dean Smith and Chancellor Hooker. The UNC students have questioned the administration's tacit approval of Nike's alleged improper labor practices which is implied by the UNC-Nike contract. At a protest on the UNC campus held November 7, the students publicly presented their demands. The first demand is that UNC establish a committee including students and professors which reviews and advises upon contract agreements negotiated between the university and any corporation. The second demand is that UNC use its contractual partnership with Nike to influence improvement in working conditions at Nike factories in the third world. They also asserted that Nike should be asked and expected to honor the letter and spirit of its own agreed code of conduct, in which Nike itself voices a commitment to being a leader in the area of human rights.

At the same November 7 protest, later speakers (including Professors Leon Fink and Charles van der Horst) emphasized the larger goals of the International Anti-Nike Campaign, which include that Nike pay its workers the appropriate living wage for that country (generally above the designated minimum wage), that Nike continue to humanize working conditions at its factories, and that Nike accept outside monitoring of its overseas facilities. Nike is a member of President Clinton's Apparel Industry Task Force, which supports the living wage as an industry standard. Nevertheless, Nike has refused to sign an agreement to pay a living wage to its workers. In recent events, Nike and the UNC administration agreed to send an investigative committee with student body representation to evaluate first-hand Nike factory conditions. The details of this plan are being formulated, and it remains to be seen if any changes in conditions are effected through these actions.

Nike's choice to run their business using overseas labor can not be separated from the overall dynamics of the global economy. However, that is only one piece of the puzzle that fits together in the UNC-Nike partnership. It is not possible or appropriate for the UNC administration to attempt to change the structure of the global economy.

Nevertheless, if UNC participates in a contract with Nike worth more than 7 million dollars, they can and should pay attention to and not ignore the fact that Nike's labor practices have been seriously questioned. As pointed out by the student activists, UNC could use their partnership with Nike to press for improvement of conditions for Nike factory workers.

But there is also an if in this equation. Should contracts that drive capitalism into the heart of academia exist in the first place? What assumptions made that if go away for the UNC policy makers who negotiated the original Nike contract and its renewal contract earlier this year? As pointed out by Chancellor Hooker at the November 7 Anti-Nike Speakout, the question is one of economics. At that rally, Chancellor Hooker vigorously defended the concept and practice of the contract and he indicated his opinion that UNC had a choice between a contract with Nike and one with Reebok. The UNC Athletic programs use the endorsement contract to achieve economic self-sufficiency within the university budget. While the athletic programs have a sizable price tag, the effective price tag might be many times higher in the post-Nike contract vs. the pre-Nike contract scenario. And what about the bonuses that university staff receive from Nike as part of the contract? Is it possibly correct to say that the driving forces for the UNC-Nike contract are at least two-fold, economics and greed?

Under the UNC-Nike contract, the university receives apparel and sports equipment carrying the Nike logo to be used in its athletic events, as well as monetary award to the athletic programs. Through this arrangement, Nike effectively purchases from the university the service of UNC athletes as Nike advertising symbols. The value of this service to Nike is clear, since some of the college athletes are current cultural heroes and/or future professional superstars. Should the athletes' services be for sale? Shouldn't the athletes, either individually or collectively, have a voice in whether their services are for sale? Should it be illegal for UNC athletes to conceal or cover the Nike logo on their uniforms or equipment? These questions are also at the center of this issue.

Lastly, this issue focuses on the blatant hypocrisy in the Nike image. How can one reconcile the noble and uplifting messages encapsulated in many of Nike's advertising spots with its practices of labor mistreatment and exploitation? The inhumane and unfair working conditions reported to exist at Nike facilities, imposed upon many poor, non-unionized, young adult or teenage women, makes Nike's advertising tactics seem starkly hypocritical and morally bankrupt. If UNC aspires to educate its students not only in the field or profession of their choice, but also in how to contribute to the fabric of a morally just society, then it seems ironic that UNC should lend its students as participants in Nike's advertising hoax.

  Miriam Sander is an athlete and scientist who has lived in the Durham area for 15 years.  

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