Published on Thursday, July 12, 2001 in the Montreal Gazette
Emblems of Greed
Multi-Million-Dollar Endorsement Contracts Tarnish Sports Stars
by Janet Bagnall
Venus Williams, 20, who this weekend won her second, consecutive Wimbledon tennis championship, is the highest-paid woman athlete in the world. She has a contract with sportswear manufacturer Reebok International Inc. that pays her $40 million over five years.
Huge endorsement deals are rare in women's sports. Monica Seles signed a five-year, $25-million deal with Nike. By some accounting, Anna Kournikova is paid as much as Williams. Others disagree. Martina Hingis has a six-year Nike contract that pays close to $30 million.
When Williams signed her renewed and vastly wealthier contract with Reebok last December, the U.S. Women's Sport Foundation was enthusiastic. "This is an important precedent for women's sports that announces a new era in the corporate valuing of the female athlete," said Donna Lapiano, executive director of the foundation.
Williams's contract is not a step forward for all womankind. It is a business deal for more money than one person could ever need or should ever have.
On some deeply primitive consumer level, it might be nice to celebrate the fact that the culture of greed has now extended its tentacles into the world of women's sports.
But first of all, this is hardly a blow for equality. The top male earner, golfer Tiger Woods, signed a contract last year with Reebok rival Nike that is more than double Williams's. His is for $100 million over five years. This follows on the heels on Woods's first five-year contract with Nike, which paid him $40 million.
Second, the idea that one hugely overpaid athlete means the rest of woman athletes or the rest of women in general will automatically benefit is a fantasy.
Far more harm comes from these contracts than good. The $40 million that Williams has signed for and the $100 million that Woods will earn from Nike alone (he has deals with another 11 companies) are paid by companies whose history is one of exploiting workers - many of them women and children - in Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam. When the scandal of the sweatshops broke in 1996 and 1997, Nike workers in Vietnam were earning 20 cents an hour.
In 1996, Woods, supposing he worked every single day for the five years of his $40-million contract, would have been earning $2,739.73 an hour. Why would anyone celebrate having a woman join this club of unmitigated greed?
Nike - along with all the other companies that shifted their production work from one impoverished country to another, looking for the lowest wages - has spent the last five years trying to recover from bad publicity.
Its main weapon is the force-for-good argument. Dusty Kidd, director of labour practices of Nike has said, "I once asked a university president, 'Do you pay a living wage on your campus?' He said that was different. But it isn't. In developing countries, the dilemma may be even greater. In Vietnam, our workers are paid more than doctors. What's the social cost if a doctor leaves his practice and goes to work for us? That's starting to happen."
Oh, dear, what's a well-meaning company to do? Maybe take some of the millions it was planning to pay a single athlete and pump it into local health services or a hospital foundation.
At some point, a feeling of repugnance settles in. Tiger Woods's appetite for money appears to know no bounds. So what if he gives some of it away to useful causes? As Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, discovered, becoming a philanthropist means parting with real money. It was not until Gates established the world's richest charity, a $21-billion foundation, that anyone took him seriously.
The sad thing is that the brilliant sports stars will become emblems of greed and selfishness. Sooner or later, the glimmering talent that companies sought to make their own will be tarnished by the association with the vast amounts of money their endorsements bring.
For now, Nike is getting its money's worth. The company's income from golf products rose from $40 million in 1995, the year before Woods began endorsing Nike, to $300 million in 2000.
But there will be a cost to companies eventually, as their brand becomes synonymous with exploitation and excess. There is already a social cost. It is our complicity in the exploitation of the world's poor.
Janet Bagnall is a Gazette editorial writer.
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