Phil Knight, the swaggering head honcho of Nike and its many billions, is
providing a classic example of how corporate wealth is strengthening its hold
over the people of this country.
It's also a textbook lesson why universities and other public schools ought
not to jump in bed with private for-profit industry, no matter how enticing the
Not surprisingly, neither Knight nor his billionaire colleagues -- billions
they made off the sweat of the poor -- see anything wrong with Nike "punishing''
institutions like the University of Michigan over taking positive action on the
long-simmering sweatshop issue.
It's Nike's money, so they can do with it what they want, is the corporate
It's Nike's money all right, money it made by suckering public,
taxpayer-supported schools to let Nike use their good names, coaches and amateur
athletes to help sell their $150 shoes that a peasant in Indonesia put together
It's that money that Nike is now using to browbeat those universities and to
stomp out dissent that might possibly hurt its bottom line.
The issue here, of course, is sweatshops, the very issue that occupied
University of Wisconsin administrators and students earlier this year.
Students here and on other campuses pushed hard to get their schools to join
the Worker Rights Consortium, an organization that aims to aggressively monitor
and expose sweatshop conditions.
Up until the WRC was formed, most schools belonged to the Fair Labor
Association, which students charged was ineffective because Nike and other
apparel giants are members and nothing was being done to change the working
Under pressure from the students, several universities, including Wisconsin,
quit the FLA and joined the WRC. Wisconsin, which has a contract with Reebok,
hasn't been "punished'' (as yet, anyway) for having the audacity to do something
socially responsible. But Michigan, Brown and the University of Oregon (Phil
Knight's own alma mater) are paying a price for joining the new group.
In a classic understatement, Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the
American Council on Education, remarked, "Clearly, the CEO of Nike ... is
seemingly saying, `Our financial support is not unconditional.' ''
Michigan, for example, stands to lose $26 million over the next six years
because Nike broke off negotiations for a contract extension. The message to
other schools, of course, is to either follow our corporate line or we'll make
you pay. And never mind what your students think.
Michigan will find other sources of revenue, as it -- and Wisconsin -- should
have in the first place. Perhaps even state governments can be shamed into once
again paying a fair share.
But if American public university administrations have any backbone, they
should say goodbye and good riddance to Knight, Nike and any other corporate
moguls who think the integrity of our educational institutions is for sale.
The exploitation of everything from college athletics to the impoverished
kids in Third World counties has gone far enough.
It's time we all stand up and demand that the power be returned to where it
belongs -- the people.
© 2000 The Capital Times