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Toe The Line, Says Nike Heel, Or Pay The Price
Published on Monday, May 8, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Toe The Line, Says Nike Heel,
Or Pay The Price
by Dave Zweifel
 
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 bait.

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 mantra.

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 for $2.

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 conditions.

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.' ''

No kidding.

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

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