Well over a decade ago, on May 12, 1998, facing growing outcry and pressure from human right’s groups across the nation, Phil Knight—Nike’s CEO and current funding father of all things Oregon Ducks—spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, DC and made 12 promises to reform the business practices at Nike.
Today Knight claims these practices are all ancient history. Many others, however, beg to differ.
There are literally hundreds of groups critical of Nike that insist Knight’s claims of reform are nothing but a huge dupe.
They claim that Nike hasn’t done much at all to change practices of ordering products from manufactures with long histories of worker abuse. That it’s still going on, Nike has changed very little, and all these pretty uniforms and new stadiums at the University of Oregon have been funded by corrupt and in some cases, a form of blood money.
Meanwhile last month, reports broke about Oregon using agents and trainers to help sway new recruits to the Duck program. The last thing Phil Knight and Nike need is a feisty NCAA rule committee sticking their nose into private business practices.
Defenders of Oregon insist the rumors are wide-spread throughout many college programs in the country, and thus the charges are inflated. Shrugs and apathy have been the norm from the faithful in Eugene.
However, with the NCAA now pointing their little radars at what’s going on “deep in the woods,” even the most apologetic Knight supporters have concern meter needles fluttering to and fro—especially now that the hapless Duck program is finally winning some actual football games.
And with the basketball team threatening to do the same, suddenly the university’s relationship with Phil Knight is growing in national significance—especially with goofy uniforms that could blind rodents recently on the BCS stage, all produced by corporate giant Nike. One big four-hour long apparel commercial using college students as unpaid models.
Yet the question still remains. Did Nike reform it's business practices or merely shuffle them under the rug for the past decade?
Last month Oregon unveiled a new basketball arena with “state of the art” everything. At the opening ceremonies was a strutting Phil Knight in a rock concert setting—bursting flames and dancing cheerleaders in halters, celebrating the new basketball palace.
During his speech, in a darkened arena using a new cool light system that made that dopey “O” thing glow like socks at a football game, Knight pointed out that the arena had been dedicated to his recently-departed son. Today Oregon fans are sensitive about this, especially when would-be cheap shot artists like me question this cozy relationship.
But the questions are still there, unanswered.
Exactly how did Mr Knight earn all these dollars?
It’s just wonderful that he’s donating funds to universities, but what has Nike been doing under the radar?
For two decades now, we’ve been hearing rumors about eight-year-olds working long hours with no time off, suffering physical injuries, all while producing sneakers and head bands, at far less cost than could be done in the United States.
Our country forces companies to pay minimum wages, and grants rights to workers not seen in third world countries. Thus the question becomes “Why is Phil Knight so reluctant to build factories in his own country, where manufacturing practices are regulated, if he indeed has reformed these practices?”
If everything is on the up and up, and if workers are being treated abroad like they would be at home, why does Nike consistently write short-term contracts abroad?
Michael Moore, the windbag producer of such comical documentaries as Fahrenheit 911, where creative editing made a former President look like a bumbling vacationing fool, is also critical of Phil Knight.
For the record, I’m not a huge Michael Moore fan. Mr. Moore does things with his films that are downright immoral themselves, in my opinion, thus his editing practices do not bode well for some of his arguments. Furthermore, I’m very suspicious of anyone who decries capitalism while owning a gaggle of pompous mansions scattered across the globe.
But even a Moore-skeptic like me looks at these interviews with Phil Knight with raised eyebrows! There are some issues here that are not being addressed, which appear greater than how many college football or basketball games the University of Oregon wins.
Such as why Phil Knight refuses to allow Michael Moore to film the inside workings of one of his off-shore manufacturing facilities? What are we hiding here?
Like most universities, Oregon prides itself on being concerned with the environment and issues that all of us should be concerned about. Issues about our fellow man, the quality of life for others, and concern for the innocent in lands far away, where children walk shoeless through filth and muck.
None of these are necessarily liberal vs. conservative arguments, nor even religious vs. secular concerns—they are issues that focus on common decency.
So what are we to make of this conversation between Phil Knight and flabby Michael Moore in the documentary? A small piece of that conversation:
Michael Moore: But you're in charge, you're the boss-
Phil Knight: Yeah, I'm in charge of it, basically—
Michael Moore: Just tell 'em, no one under 16, just like our shoe factories. Just tell em. You're Phil Knight.
Phil Knight: Well, actually, I think that over, within a fairly short period of time you'll see some of that, but it won't happen, it won't happen over the next six months probably.
Michael Moore: But you're committed.
Phil Knight: No, no, we want good labor practices in all these countries. We try to be the best citizen we can be.
Michael Moore: So you're telling me now that you're committed to not having people work in your factories under the age of 16?
Phil Knight: That's true in the shoe factories in Indonesia...
Dusty Kidd: (Nike's labor relations chief) We are one of 20 or 30 customers in our apparel factories, so we can't dictate to them nearly to the extent-
Michael Moore: Is it safe to say that's your goal? Is it safe to say that's your goal-to not have people-
Phil Knight: We can impose that and will do that in those apparel factories that we basically have the dominant position in. But we can't do that when we're just a minor buyer.
Michael Moore: But, anything that you control, you're going to, you're goal-
Phil Knight: In Indonesia, in Indonesia, we're moving towards age 16.
For me, football fan or not, that conversation bothers me.
But no more than do these other allegations made in a paper written by Bette Jean Bullert of Seattle University. In her paper, Bullert alleges the following:
"Between 1989 and 1995, only 21 news articles appeared in the U.S. press linking Nike to strikes in Indonesia, but 1996 was a pivotal year in the anti-sweatshop campaign. Seven years of survey research, international studies on globalization and human rights and organizing by NGOs came to fruition. But it took a celebrity and a fired Nike worker to put a human face on the sweatshop issue and escalate the conflict in the mainstream American media...
"...Knight was silent on the issues of wages and the length of the work day. Nike contracted with a factory in China whose employees said they worked 11 and 12 hour days with only two days off a month, and earned 16 cents to 19 cents an hour with no overtime. The anti-Nike campaign has responded by expanding its data collection in China and continuing to monitor conditions in other factories.
"...At the same conference, the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and other student organizations launched the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a coalition with labor unions and human rights groups. In the three weeks since its founding, 45 universities have signed on with the commitment to be sure items that carry the university logos are not made in sweatshops. Phil Knight has withdrawn a $30 million commitment to his alma mater, the University of Oregon in Eugene, because the university has joined the WRC."
So here’s my question, Oregon Duck fans: If it turns out that Phil Knight indeed has earned his billions, either today or in the past, by exploiting workers in other nations deliberately and callously...is the University of Oregon still willing to accept his multi-million dollar donations?
Will you Duck fans still support this?
Should Stanford University accept money from Phil Knight, if it is proven that Nike’s off-shore operations are at odds with the most minimum standards in first world nations?
Sources for the above, plus more about the Nike controversy, are at the below links: