by | Apr 3, 1997 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

What’s the most important part of your body? Your mind, right? Well, you’d better protect it. Because something is trying to get it.

That something is a shoe company called Nike.

Consider a recent commercial featuring black baseball stars thanking Jackie Robinson for breaking the color line. It is a touching tribute, grainy film footage mixed with heartfelt messages. It looks like some philanthropic foundation put it together. But when the moment peaks, and your heart is open, what’s the last thing you see?

A Nike swoosh.

Same way you see a Nike swoosh after those Tiger Woods commercials, in which the children of the world — all races, mind you — dream of being Tiger.

You’ll notice these ads do not try to sell you shoes or clothing — which are, after all, what Nike makes. But that should be your first warning. By its founder’s admission, Nike is no longer in the shoe business; it’s in the image business. It wants you to feel a certain way. It wants you and your kids to desire the swoosh subliminally, under the skin, without even knowing why.

Call it planned addiction. First, Nike wants your mind. Then it takes your wallet.

Well, I don’t like anyone playing with my brain. And while it’s not my place to correct history, I will if it is being manipulated.

So let me make two points here:

1. Nike founder Phil Knight — a man who pretty much wants to rule the world — had nothing to do with Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color line, nothing to do with fighting prejudice in golf, and nothing to do with helping poor people better themselves. In fact, when it comes to exploiting poor people, Nike seems to have a motto . . .

2. Let’s Do It.

Exploiting labor

A recent report revealed that Nike’s factories in Vietnam are treating women like slaves, paying them $1.60 a day in wages — not even enough to buy three meals of rice and vegetables. These women are limited to one bathroom break per eight-hour shift, and two drinks of water. If they talk too much, they have their mouths taped. If they make a mistake, they are slapped. They spend 60 hours a week making shoes like the new Air Jordans, which sell for about $150 a pair.

Ask Michael Jordan the last time he got slapped for talking.

Ask Phil Knight why none of the cute kids in his commercials is seen hunkered over a machine, stitching shoes.

Oh, I forgot. It’s not the right “image.”

But it is the truth. Nike has been exploiting cheap labor for years. It started in other countries, South Korea, Taiwan, but as those countries developed and workers rightfully demanded more, it moved to the next foreign haven. Nike ducks criticism by saying, “That’s how people in those countries work,” or, “We’re no worse than anyone else” — which has always been the lamest defense. Yes, many athletic shoe companies are guilty of such practices, as are many apparel makers.

But Nike is special. No other company tries to paint itself as such an angel, while doing so much of the devil’s business.

Feigning disbelief

Remember, folks, this is the same company that prices shoes up to $180 a pair, limits the quantity — to create frenzied demand — releases them on a school day, then can’t understand why mothers complain that their kids are cutting school to buy them.

This is the same company that targets inner-city youths who can’t afford their shoes — then feigns disbelief when someone gets shot for a pair.

“We’re not gouging anybody,” Knight has said. At $180 a pair? Paying workers $1.60 an hour? With a report this week that shows Nike’s earnings this quarter alone jumped 77 percent, while profits rose to $237 million? Not gouging? You’re right, Phil. We need a stronger word than gouge.

Now, I doubt this column will make a dent in people’s Nike habits. They didn’t stop buying Nike when it gave money to Tonya Harding’s defense fund, or when it jumped into bed with Jerry Jones of the Cowboys — defying the NFL — or when it threatened the Olympic medal ceremony because Dream Team members would have to wear a rival’s sweatsuits.

So why should people stop buying Nike because some Vietnamese girls half a world away are being treated like human garbage? What do we care, right? We live here, in Happy Land, where every kid can Be Like Mike, just plunk down
$150 and come on board.

Nike knows this. They know you don’t care. They wouldn’t dare try it here, with American workers. They’re not dumb.

Well, I won’t be dumb, either. I have purchased my last pair of Nike anything. They may own every famous athlete, every pro and college team. They may spend billions on brainwashing disguised as advertising, sticking their swoosh on every noble thing that ever happened in America and claiming it as their own.

But they’re not getting my mind. It’s the only thing I have left to detect evil. I plan to protect it.

I suggest you do the same.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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