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Like a lot of NBA beat reporters, Jeff Ballinger waited by his fax machine all day Monday.

He, too, hoped to get word that Michael Jordan’s latest comeback would finally become official, after the most tiresome and anticlimactic will-he-or-won’t-he? since the Generalissimo Franco death watch.

Not because Ballinger wants to see Jordan play again. But because if Jordan does play again, Ballinger can relaunch his attacks on His Airness for being king of the sweatshops.

Ballinger isn’t a scribe. He’s a researcher at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an occasional lawyer. He’s also something of a professional rabble-rouser. For the past 10 years, his cause célèbre has been labor conditions in the shoe and sports-apparel industries.

Nike, being the major domo in those fields, gets the bulk of Ballinger’s attention.

A decade ago, while working in D.C. for the AFL-CIO’s Asian Institute, Ballinger made a trip to Indonesia to observe the goings-on in the textile factories. What he saw at the Nike plants inspired Ballinger to found Press for Change, a clearinghouse for information about the exploitation situation. The group’s efforts sparked protests against the company on college campuses across the country.

And Jordan, along with being the acclaimed best-ever baller, is the most successful shoe salesman in the history of feet, thanks to his alliance with Nike. For as long as Jordan laces up the Air Jordans, Ballinger plans to keep his pricey sneakers in the fire.

“I guess you could say Michael Jordan’s comeback is good for me,” Ballinger tells me.

It’s appropriate that Jordan’s latest comeback announcement, which was supposed to arrive Monday by fax to all major news organizations, wasn’t stalled because of a flare-up of any of the dubious injuries—ribs, back, knees, and so on—that Jordan allegedly suffered this summer. No, the one-day delay was instead attributed to quibbling between Jordan and the NBA about licensing rights to his name and likeness. (One would think Jordan and superagent David Falk would’ve dotted all the I’s by now, given how long the comeback saga has dragged on. And whatever happened to Jordan and Falk’s pledge in the spring of 2000 that Jordan’s career as a pitchman was over?)

Jordan’s name and likeness can be found in essentially every corner of the marketplace. Consumers so desiring can procure colognes, undies, Internet addresses, shower powders, cuts of meat, and golf clubs that he’s blessed for pay. Jordan even has a signature bowling ball—the MJ Slam. (Alas, AMF Bowling, the Richmond-based outfit that hawks Jordan’s balls, went into the tank after signing the hoop legend as a pitchman; in July, AMF stock, which went for about $30 a share only a few years ago, was going for pennies, and the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.)

But it’s Jordan’s shoes that have left the biggest prints, and they contribute most of the reported $40 million in annual endorsement income that goes Jordan’s way. (Fortune magazine puts his net worth at nearly $400 million.) Late-model Air Jordans, which can cost a couple hundred dollars, cause riots in Middle America’s shopping malls upon release. Vintage Nikes with the Jordan logo routinely go for four figures in Japan.

But, as Ballinger learned in the Far East, the folks who make all those pricey shoes earn pennies per pair. Many of the workers in the plants are far too young to hold such jobs in U.S. factories and are forced to endure conditions, including sexually predatory supervisors and forced overtime, that wouldn’t be permitted in this country.

Ballinger tried to get Jordan to pay attention to the labor-exploitation issue during the ex-Bull’s pre-retirement days, and then again after his first comeback, in 1995.

“We thought Michael should visit the places where his shoes are manufactured, so he could see the horrible conditions many of the workers faced,” Ballinger says.

For a time, Ballinger thought he was making headway. The press attracted by the campus activism against Nike’s sweatshops (which included a very organized student effort at Georgetown University, where former basketball coach John Thompson earned millions for making his players wear Nikes) forced Nike and Jordan to occasionally address the issue.

On Larry King Live in 1999, the host asked Jordan if he planned on finding out if the accusations of abuse at the plants where his shoes were made were true.

“I plan to take this summer to visit, you know, Asia and certainly continue on that whole probe about that issue,” Jordan told King.

Ballinger, expecting Jordan to live up to his word, put together an informational brochure made up by a panel of labor and trade experts that he hoped to get to the pitchman before he made the excursion. No luck.

“Nobody at Falk’s offices in D.C. would return my calls,” Ballinger says. “I didn’t really get anywhere. I don’t think my materials ever got to Jordan.”

In the end, Ballinger’s briefs were unnecessary. Jordan, who as a ball-handler perfected the art of traveling on the court, never made the Asian trip. Nor did he publicly address the worker-exploitation issue again.

The problems at the Nike plants haven’t gone away. Ballinger points to a report that the mostly Thai immigrants working in the Taiwan plants where many Nike wares are now manufactured recently had their already minimal wages slashed by 16 percent, to less than $460 (U.S.) a month. And salaries aren’t the only problem.

“The workers still work and live in squalor, with production quotas that aren’t realistic, forced overtime, foremen who demand sexual favors from young women,” Ballinger says. “It’s still bad.”

Now, with Jordan’s relevancy again ascending, he’s more exposed to criticism for the labor situation at Nike’s plants. New York Times columnist Harvey Araton, in a piece Tuesday about the delay of the comeback announcement, slammed Jordan for not using his cultural clout for anything other than buck-making.

“No one has ever confused you, Michael, with Muhammad Ali or Martina Navratilova or Arthur Ashe,” Araton wrote. “With your icon leverage you might have helped convert Nike, the notorious third-world workplace abuser, but you didn’t do causes that were not commercials.”

With Jordan now getting his game face on, Ballinger won’t be demanding that he make that pledged Asian pilgrimage anytime soon. But he plans on putting full-court pressure on Jordan to do something.

“It’s real simple, Michael,” Ballinger says. “Just insist that Nike force the Taiwanese firms to pay full minimum wage, since some of your stuff is made there. We can get to bigger issues later.” Like, say, the next time Jordan retires from basketball. —Dave McKenna