I didn't know it until recently, but I am a student at Nike University. If you attend a large NCAA university in the United States, chances are you're a Nike U. student, too. The University of North Carolina, the University of Kentucky, Florida State, the University of Arizona, Clemson University, and the University of Colorado are just a few of the schools that make up Planet Nike.
How can you tell that you go to Nike U? Just take a look at the uniforms of your school's favorite sports team. If you see the telltale swoosh plastered on jerseys, helmets, shorts and shoes, then you'll know for sure.
Gear sponsorship deals are nothing new in sports - for years, athletes have endorsed bats, balls, gloves and various other sport-related items for their own financial gain. Endorsement deals at the university level, however, are more recent in origin and more dubious in nature. The deals are the outcome of two separate processes: the money loop and the education squeeze.
In its zeal to win over the hearts, minds and shoes of America, Nike has constructed a pretty neat little system: a money loop that begins with production, continues with advertising, moves on to purchasing and then returns to production. Let's travel the loop and see what happens.
As cofounder and CEO of Nike, that's exactly what Knight did. According to CBS News, the New York Times, the Campaign for Labor Rights , and Thuyen Nguyen of Vietnam Labor Watch, workers making Nike products in Vietnam, China and Indonesia make only $1.60, $1.75 and $2.46 per day, respectively. Numerous human rights abuses have been reported.
To get the full story on Nike's Asian sweatshops, visit these organizations' informative web pages. There are two important points to remember here.
The average Nike pair of shoes costs $63. At this rate, it would take a Vietnamese worker 40 days to make enough money to buy the shoes they make. Of course, this assumes they don't have to spend their money anywhere else. The fact that all of their meager earnings must go toward food and shelter makes it unlikely that they will ever be able to purchase the shoes they make.
When you pay your workers pennies an hour and sell your shoes for tens or hundreds of dollars, you've got a lot of spending cash. Nike's marketing and promotion budget for 1997 is a whopping $978 million per year. Where does that go? Well, some of it goes toward simple television and print advertising, but a surprising amount goes toward endorsement deals. At the professional level, Michael Jordan got $20 million dollars a year to endorse Nike and wear the swoosh. Monica Seles and Tiger Woods receive $40 million a year combined. At the university level, millions of dollars are provided yearly to each university with a signed Nike contract.
When Michael Jordan wears the Nike swoosh, it is a matter of his own choosing and he gets paid big bucks to do it. When university athletes wear the Nike swoosh, they get paid absolutely nothing for their display. The only choice they have in the matter is to wear the swoosh, or not to play at all. On the other hand, coaches receive handsome compensation. For instance, Lute Olson of the champion Arizona Wildcats rakes in $200,000 a year from Nike. This past summer, all the NCAA coaches in the Nike stable were invited to take a cruise on the Carribean Sea. Guess who paid the bill? That's right, Nike (Arizona Daily Star 3/11/97).
Nike would like you to think it is sponsoring universities out of the kindness of its corporate heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. As part of these contracts, Nike insists that all athletes wear Nike gear. If other brand gear is used, then brand symbols must be covered by tape. Nike also receives a certain portion of game tickets to distribute as favors, as it sees fit. Finally, in some contracts with schools such as the University of Kentucky, Nike specifies that the university is to make no disparaging comments about Nike. As universities take in payments, they flush the first amendment down the drain.
Let's review: Nike executives reap hundreds of millions of dollars for thinking this whole scheme up. Nike stockholders reap many millions more for supplying the initial cash. Universities get a few million dollars a year for slapping the swoosh on helmets, jerseys, shorts and shoes. Coaches get a couple hundred thousand in spending change and go on cruise. Asian workers get paid pennies an hour, and student athletes get paid nothing at all.
All in all, this is a pretty sneaky scheme, and the system seems hard to beat. And if you are a part of a Nike University or buy Nike shoes, you may unwittingly play a part in maintaining the system. On the bright side, that means that you can help stop Nike's abuses too. We can make a difference, and there is a way out. For instance, although New Balance and Saucony shoes still do some cheap business involving low wages, they are increasingly paying their workers a living wage. And after the Associated Students at the University of California, Irvine voted 25-1 to join the Nike Boycott, Athletic Department Director Dan Guererro decided to end Nike contracts as soon as they expire, beginning this year. Here are just a few suggestions on how to help Nike, and your university, change their ways.