We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Georgetown’s absence from March Madness maddened Gabe Kramer and Michael Burns for different reasons than it did fellow GU students.
As the school’s cool kids shipped off to Aruba or Branson or some other cool kids’ spot for spring break last week, Kramer and Burns remained on campus and hung out with other members of the Georgetown Solidarity Committee (GSC), a small, loud student clique they’ve organized not to hail the Hoyas hoops team but to harass it. At issue is the relationship between Nike and Georgetown’s highest-profile employee and public conscience, coach John Thompson.
The GU students aren’t happy that Nike sneakers that cost upward of $150 per pair are assembled by workers making less than $1.50 per day in Asian sweatshops, and they want the Jesuit institution and Thompson to cut all ties to a company that the protesters say so clearly puts profits above human rights. But with Thompson’s underachieving squad stuck at a relative sock hopthe NITinstead of the Big Dance, the inert spring breakers don’t have much of a parade to pee on.
“I think we would have had more fun if we’d have made the [NCAA] tournament,” shrugs Kramer, a senior. “That would have given us a nicer forum.”
Burns, a theology major who will also graduate in May, hopes to land some domestic labor-organizing job after he leaves Georgetown. But he has devoted his last year of school to a crusade on behalf of underrepresented workers overseas, specifically those who toil in manufacturing plants in Asia owned by U.S.-based firms. Like Nike.
Thompson isn’t the only target of the anti-Nike fight brewing on the Georgetown campus: The crew and baseball teams have lesser Nike apparel deals, and the school also has a licensing arrangement in which official GU souvenir goods like sweatshirts and T-shirts are produced by Nike plantssweatshops, according to GSC.
But Thompson is far and away GSC’s biggest target. Not only is he a member of the Nike board of directors and the owner of millions of dollars’ worth of company stock, but Thompson is also paid handsomely to induce all his players to sport only shoes and garments that have Swooshes on them. (According to GSC, Thompson personally received $367,713 from Nike in 1997 for the basketball team’s apparel and shoe deal.)
“Before I came to Georgetown, John Thompson was the only name I knew from this school,” says Burns. “And even today, he is the public face of Georgetown. He’s also very influential internationally. That means that John Thompson has an incredible opportunity to show the world that Georgetown stands for more than just profit, and we’d love to work with him to get that message out.”
So far, Thompson hasn’t met with GSC or even personally responded to its divestiture pleas. (Thompson didn’t respond to an interview request from Washington City Paper, either.) But group members remain hopeful he’ll eventually do the right thing, pointing out that Thompson once traveled to Indonesia and toured some Nike plants during a company-sponsored junket. If he ever gets the real story, instead of the sugar-coated one company officials presented him on that trip, he won’t push Nike wear on his kids, says Burns.
“John Thompson got a guided tour from a tour guide paid by Nike,” he says. “I don’t think I’d call that independent monitoring, just like the U.S. inspectors didn’t call what they were getting in Iraq independent monitoring, so I don’t think John Thompson is as informed as he should be.”
Nike-bashing isn’t just a Georgetown thing: Anti-Nike delegations are now up and running on dozens of U.S. campuses. Not coincidentally, several other NCAA schoolsgenerally hoops factories like North Carolina, Duke, and Michigan, to name but a fewand top coaches also have seven-figure deals with Nike. Even “Doonesbury” has had a story line about sweatshops and the world’s biggest shoe company.
Nike is obviously aware of the “No Sweat” remonstration. A year ago, in fact, the campaign caused Nike to contract GoodWorks, a P.R. firm founded by Andrew Young, to send the former U.N. ambassador and civil rights leader on a tour of its Third World operations. The hope was that Young’s junket and his cachet would quell the burgeoning criticism before it reached Kathie Lee-esque proportions.
Young’s hiring backfired horribly, however. After the Asian trip, he released a glowing account of the worker-management relations at the alleged sweatshops, even including in his summary many photos of smiling shoe assemblers, some strumming guitars in the workplace. But in a story called “The Young and the Feckless,” the New Republic accused Young of ignoring all the negative things he saw, like union-busting plant managers and serious health hazardssuch as levels of the carcinogen toluene several times higher than what’s tolerated in U.S. plants.
Nike’s more recent hiring of Vada Manager as point man and spinmeister for the “No Sweat” debate has been similarly disastrous. Locals should remember Manager as chief flack for Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly at a time when jobs were leaving D.C. by the Metro car-ful. One would think that Manager could manage the worst Niketown had to offer by the time he got out of town.
But whatever seasoning Manager got here hasn’t shown. He authored a limping Op-Ed for the New York Daily News in January, pooh-poohing the reproach his employer now faces: All Nike “products must be produced in the best working conditions,” wrote Manager. “We won’t stand for anything less.” And to explain Nike’s reliance on cheap foreign labor, Manager asserted: “We’ve leveraged our manufacturing overseas to generate a significant number of jobs in the U.S.”
“Vada Manager is absolutely awful. Just awful,” laughs Jeff Ballinger, a director of Press for Change, a clearinghouse for anti-Nike protests on college campuses. “Anybody who says anything bad about Nike he labels as being part of a ‘fringe group.’ Somebody should tell him that nobody uses terms like ‘fringe group’ anymore without being laughed at.”
Neither Young’s nor Manager’s endeavors have quashed a single “No Sweat” campaign, says Ballinger. The Georgetown protest, notes Burns, is adding protesters every week. Documentarian/agitprop specialist Michael Moore has championed GSC, and Burns says Moore will soon bring his upcoming project, The Big One (which includes a Roger & Me-style sandbagging of Nike CEO Phil Knight), to the Hilltop to show his support.
Not that GSC needs Moore to validate its mission. No, validation came last month when a banner-carrying student ran onto the court and disrupted the GU-Boston College game at the MCI Center. A campus newspaper reported that anti-Nike forces had led the Chinatown insurrection. As it turned out, the protester was actually railing against the then-imminent U.S. bombing of Iraq but hadn’t drawn up a very legible placard. The paper retracted its story, but not until giving Burns and Kramer some publicity, as well as alerting them to a method of protest that, because they’re seniors, they’ll never be able to employ.
“People must know about what we’re doing, because it was just assumed that it was one of us who ran onto the court,” says Kramer. “We wish it had been. Protesting at our basketball gamesthat’s a good idea.”Dave McKenna