Sweat Equity

The University of Arizona's contract with Nike has a controversial history.

The University of Arizona has been in business with Nike since 1998, when the UA inked a $7 million contract with the footwear giant.

Under the terms of the five-year deal, the UA receives $1.4 million annually. The bulk of that comes in shoes, apparel and equipment worth an estimated $818,000 in retail value. Student programs receive $102,000, while coaches in 11 different programs split $435,000. (The coaches, along with assistants and administrators, also get roughly $68,000 in Nike products.) The UA also gets an 8.5-percent royalty on some apparel sales--a particularly lucrative clause in a year when Arizona reaches the final NCAA championship game.

There's no doubt the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics needs the Nike dollars these days. Although UA Athletic Director Jim Livengood declined to be interviewed for this story, it's obvious he's facing new challenges when it comes to balancing his books.

The price tag of his beleaguered football program jumped at the end of last season, when Coach Dick Tomey resigned after 14 years with the UA. Livengood was under tremendous pressure to replace Tomey after the Cats' mediocre 5-6 season. Although Tomey's program won 12 games in 1998 and had impressive graduation rates, Livengood was prepared to fire Tomey had he not quit. The university will pay Tomey $200,000 a year for the next three years.

Replacing Tomey, who was paid $500,000 a year, wasn't cheap. New coach John Mackovic will earn $800,000 a year--a base salary of $200,000, with an additional $600,000 for representing the university at public appearances.

Basketball coach Lute Olson, who last year renegotiated his contract to more than $658,000 annually through 2005, might be feeling a bit of salary envy--and given the Cats' NCAA tourney run this year, it seems likely he might seek a raise himself.

As a primarily self-supporting program, the athletic department must adopt aggressive fundraising to match those climbing costs. The department just socked basketball season ticket holders with a steep increase in exchange for special privileges and giveaways such as reserved parking, invitations to receptions with Lute Olson, and lapel pins.

So it's no surprise that Livengood, who earns roughly $300,000 a year, looked to Nike for financial support. But the contract negotiations sparked opposition on campus from faculty and administrative staff critical of working conditions in factories that produced Nike shoes and apparel.

The contract also triggered the creation of the local branch of Students Against Sweatshops, which has doggedly criticized the Nike deal.

"It just seemed wrong for the university to get itself involved in a relationship with a company that doesn't respect human rights," says Rachel Wilson, a grad student in the psych program who serves as spokesperson for the organization.

The local group is a branch of United Students Against Sweatshops, a national organization that has sprouted chapters across the country, often when universities ink deals with Nike and other multinational brands. The anti-sweatshop movement has emerged at the forefront of student activism on dozens of campuses across the country, including Duke, Yale, the University of Michigan and the University of California.

In response to criticism from the student groups, Nike opened a Department of Corporate Responsibility in 1998, promising to respond to complaints about working conditions in overseas factories. The following year, Nike helped create the Fair Labor Association to monitor factories.

Nike has played a tight defense against Students Against Sweatshops as well. Last summer, Nike staff stalked a group of activists on a tour of Niketowns across the country, using security and local authorities to squelch protests before they could launch.

At the UA, the local branch of Students Against Sweatshops has targeted UA President Peter Likins with protests ranging from dumping Nike sneakers at his office to a 10-day sit-in prompted by the UA's decision to join the Fair Labor Association, which Wilson complains is a "PR front."

"Their purpose is to look like they're monitoring factories so that Nike can get good PR," Wilson complains.

Likins, who declined repeated requests for an interview for this article, remains a supporter of the Fair Labor Association. But to end the sit-in, Likins signed an agreement that unless Nike subcontracted with factories that provide livable wages, the university would cut ties with the corporation. The agreement also insisted on full disclosure of factory locations and unannounced monitoring, as well as stressing the importance of rights for women workers.

"Women suffer particularly in these situations," says Wilson. "They get sexual harassment, pregnancy tests, stuff like that."

As part of the agreement, Likins agreed to pull out of the Fair Labor Association if it did not include those four points in its charter.

"The Fair Labor Association didn't even have to implement any of these provisions," says Wilson. "They didn't have to do anything about any one of them; they just had to include language in their charter that said they were going to take care of these things. They had a year and a half to do and they didn't do it."

DESPITE HIS REFUSAL TO withdraw from the Fair Labor Association, Likins did follow a recommendation from students and faculty to join the Worker Rights Consortium, an alternative non-profit monitoring group that's funded primarily through foundation grants and dues from the 75 schools that are members.

Nike CEO Phil Knight takes a dim view of the Worker Rights Consortium; when his alma mater, the University of Oregon, joined the group, he announced he would no longer contribute to the school, which had received $50 million from him in the past.

Besides the fight over the university's membership in the Fair Labor Association, Wilson has also been pushing a university policy change that would allow student athletes to decline to wear corporate logos. Last October, the proposal was moving swiftly along through the University Committee on Corporate Relations and chances for passage looked good. Even Livengood downplayed any negatives to the proposal.

But in a confidential memo on the subject, the Department of Intercollegiate Athletics listed a number of objections, including:

· The danger that such a policy could permanently sour relations between the university and corporate sponsors. "Uniform and equipment suppliers will not continue to develop university partnerships unless they have assurances that the minimal guaranteed logo exposure is assured," the memo explains. "This is an essential component of funding throughout the world for amateur and professional sports alike."

· The policy's targeting of student athletes, rather than the student body as a whole.

· The fact that no Arizona student athletes have ever complained about wearing a corporate logo. "Every student athlete upon joining their team is well aware that they will be wearing uniforms and equipment with a corporate logo," says the memo. "In the world of sports today, that is a given."

In summary, the "proposed amendment creates a policy that provides one campus auxiliary with a potential financial disaster and creates a non-competitive environment that precludes Arizona Athletics from developing to its potential," the memo says. "Current and future student athletes are unfairly penalized."

Since the athletic department delivered its memo, the issue has stalled as the chairmanship of the committee has changed. Most recently, the committee has been bogged down in parliamentary minutiae about what constitutes a quorum and, complains Wilson, "when a vote is really a vote."

In the meantime, Students Against Sweatshops finds other ways to dog Nike. A recent flier mocked the corporation's current Goddess campaign, which focuses on women's empowerment.

"We think this is absolutely insane, considering who works in these factories," says Wilson.

About The Author

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment