Cartoonist Gary Trudeau, no doubt aware of my sermon subject, has focused his "Doonesbury" comic strip on my theme. Two football players are hovering over a computer:
"Come on, Darren," says Skeet, "we're gonna be late for practice."
"Just a minute we got some E-mail...'To protest conditions in Nike factories, we call upon all Nike-sponsored athletes to observe Nike Awareness Day on October 18.'"
"What? Who's that from?"
"Some chick from Seattle."
Kim, Michael Doonesbury's significant other, says to Doonesbury's young daughter Alex: "Only 199 rosters to go."
Alex: "Do some girl teams, too."
Then, Darren: "And 'Kim' claims Nike hires Asian workers as young as 13!
"That's what she says, Skeet."
"That's bogus, man. The head of NIKE denied all that."
"Yeah. He says they're 14."
"Turns out the 13 thing is a total media fabrication."
Kim at computer: "And according to a new report, there are still numerous violations in Nike's factories in China. The use of underage labor, forced overtime, and sub-minimum wages violates not only Chinese law, but Nike's own code of conduct. To protest these conditions, we urge all NIKE-sponsored athletes to refuse to wear their gear this weekend."
Darren: "She wants us to get naked."
Skeet: "Bail! It's probably a guy!"
And finally, Doonesbury is watching the Walden University-University of Connecticut football game on T.V...."and there was an interesting moment at the Walden-UConn game today. Let's pick up the play-by-play."
"....and the hand-off is to Darren Deaver, the 210 pound fullback from Utica, New York! And he's, he's....my gosh, what's he doing? He's removing his uniform!"
"Yes, he is Hank - in apparent protest of Nike factory conditions!"
"And it seems to have caught Uconn by surprise! No one's laying a hand on him! And he's in - Darren Deaver scores!"
"Doing well by doing good! That's some kinda youngster, Bob!"
Gary Trudeau is once again craftily engaging his readers in a controversial issue - this time an international one. Apparently, that's what it takes to interest Americans in the wider world. We are preoccupied with other matters. I have been bothered by a kind of moral myopia when it comes to international justice - as individuals, as stockholders, as citizens. If we Unitarian Universalists take seriously "the goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all" we should pay attention. And so, keeping with the Doonesbury theme, I invite you to focus on four figures, symbolic of the rest of us.
Let's begin with Kathie Lee Gifford, T.V. personality and wife of sports announcer Frank Gifford. She was profiting handsomely through her Walmart line of clothing - clothing manufactured in sweatshops by child labor, not only in Honduras, but also in New York City. She was surprised and horrified by the story. Kathy Lee gives 10% of her earnings to children's charities including two New York City centers for AIDS and crack-addicted babies. The Giffords gave $300 to each of the New York City workers they could locate. One can only wonder what each of these workers was owed with a living wage.
Whether to repair her tattered public image or to do the right thing or both, Gifford has become something of a crusader against sweatshop abuse of children, tearfully testifying before the U.S. Congress, and instituting an internal monitoring system in her business. Her saga was a good public introduction to the way our habits as consumers and investors have impact on persons we never meet in a global economy. Then the Nike issue came along.
Trudeau has summarized it succinctly. I could detail the allegations made against Nike: it left Maine to find cheap labor in South Korea; then when unions demanded higher wages, it left for China and Indonesia. Indonesia officials fear that if too much pressure it applied against the company, it will move again. Nike's billionaire CEO Phil Knight knows a bottom line when he sees one.
I could list the studies indicting Nike; it was included in the 1994 "Hall of Shame" by Multinational Monitor, a citizen group surveying corporate behavior. It is accused of maximizing work while minimizing wages below a living wage; of tolerating "management by terror," physical and mental abuse of workers - mostly female. It's not a pretty picture. We see all this while other sports apparel companies in Asia pay their workers far above the living wage - Unilever of Holland and Great Britain, Bata of Canada, for example. It can be done.
Nike at first washed its hands of these charges saying "we're just buyers" since they deal with local contractors who do the manufacturing. Nike's General Manager in Indonesia said of this, "I don't know that I need to know. It's not within our scope to investigate." Then, under growing pressure from human rights groups and the State Department, it developed a Memorandum of Understanding and a Code of Conduct. More recently civil rights activist and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young went on a Nike-sponsored Asian tour and pronounced it good. And a yet more recent Nike-financed study from the University of Maine did likewise. Whether those responses were merely public relations or genuine reform is hotly debated. Remembering the Nestle Boycott of infant formula abuse abroad, I am inherently suspicious of profit-making companies investigating themselves or financing others to do it.
Nike CEO Phil Knight once received $80 million in stock dividends for the previous three month period after one of its Indonesian factories was granted a waiver so it did not have to increase the minimum wage by less than 20 cents per day per worker. It turns out that just two per-cent of Nike's annual marketing budget would double the wages of the people making the shoes and raise them above the poverty level.
Which brings us to Tiger Woods, the young golfing phenomenon whose exploits on the links have earned him a $40 million dollar contract over five years with Nike, among others. I suppose that given his youth - he's 21 - we shouldn't expect too much. Perhaps he just doesn't notice that the company which can afford to pay him millions to endorse its brand pays the people who make its shoes as little as possible.
At a news conference in Troon Scotland, site of the British Open Golf Tournament, Woods was asked about the Nike controversy. He was taken aback: "You're the first one to ask about that. No one has asked me because all I do is play golf. I chase a little white ball around, that's all I do. We talk about it. But it's never been raised as an official question or anything like that."
There are those who say leave him alone and let him play golf. But I'm not willing to do that for Tiger Woods or for anyone else who is profiting handsomely while others suffer unnecessarily. Woods is not just an athlete - he is a human being and thus a moral creature. And, 21 or not, he needs to take his moral influence more seriously than that. Since when are professional athletes exempt from the moral responsibility we all bear for the common good?
And what about Michael Jordan, arguably the most famous athlete - if not the most famous person in the world. Now everyone likes Mike. I love to see him with a basketball in his hands. But Jordan's take from Nike dwarfs even that of Woods, since he has been a pitchman far longer. Nike pays him more in one year than it pays all the workers, mostly women and children, in all the factories which made the shoes. Production labor cost for a $70 shoe is about $2.75, 4%.
Now Michael is not a bad model - apart from a little gambling flap a few years ago, he is a family man, supports the United Negro College Fund, has basketball camps for poor kids and no doubt does much more. But Michael evidently doesn't want to get involved in the Nike squabble. Who can blame him? He has a squeaky clean image and the money just keeps rolling in.
And so when asked about his role as the international representative of a company whose image is badly tarnished, what does he say? "I think that's Nike's decision to do what it can to make sure that everything is correctly done. I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be."
"Whatever that might be." Now there's a morally prophetic statement from the world's greatest athlete. Now, I don't expect him to be a Moses or a Jesus, but wouldn't you think he might show just a tad more concern about the well-being of human beings whose work makes him a multi-millionaire? Michael, did you ever stop to think what would happen if one day you said, "I just won't do it anymore"? That would give "it" some moral content.And then there's the case of Julie Foudy, a name unfamiliar to most of us. As an avid reader of the sports page, I found her picture in the Faces in Sports feature.. "Show me the factory" was the headline, and the caption read, "U.S. Women's Soccer star Julie Foudy was asked by Reebok, which has given her a shoe contract, to endorse a soccer ball. She responded by asking for a tour of the factory where the balls are made." What a refreshing surprise. An athlete - albeit not a highly paid superstar, who saw herself as a moral agent with a concern beyond getting and winning. She is at least struggling with the issue.
Now why have I told you about these four people? Their attitudes are symptomatic of our own. Kathie Lee Gifford just didn't know about the sweatshops. Tiger Woods has talked about it but sees his only role as chasing a little white ball around the golf course. Michael Jordan feels Nike will do the right thing, whatever that is. Julie Foudy may be kissing millions of dollars good-bye.
The Nike story is also symptomatic of the reality that trans-national corporations, many based in America, now rule the world. While one billion people live on less than $1 a day; while global population increases by 88 million a year; while free trade enriches a few corporations with a global reach, the haves increase their colossal riches, while the have-nots are plunged deeper into abject poverty. It's not working very well - our corporate led, profit-seeking approach to development is working very well for us, but not very well for many of the poor of the world. The Nike story is one reason why.
What we need is, of course, more support for those human rights organizations which see human well-being as the bottom line, which try to hold governments and private groups accountable. We need, of course, more Ted Turners with his one billion dollar gift to the UN. On a much more modest scale, we need at least to joining our own Unitarian Universalist UN Office which supports just and sustainable development and family planning around the globe. We need at least to urge our government to pay our dues to a reformed United Nations - so the world is not held hostage to Jesse Helms' moral myopia. But we also need a far more visionary approach to a world government that can enforce fair economic practices with human rights on a global scale. That, I'm afraid, will be a long time coming.
There is an arresting allegory from a 1969 Star Trek show, "Illusions of the Cloud Minders." The rulers of the planet Ardana lived in the beautiful and peaceful city, Stratos, suspended high above the earth's surface, while inhabitants of the surface, the Troglytes, worked the planet's mines in misery and violence below. The entire planet had been colonized by rulers who successfully detached and isolated themselves from the people of the planet's surface on whose toil their luxuries depended.
The ever insightful creature Spock says, "This troubled planet is a place of the most violent contrasts. Those who receive the rewards are totally separate from those who shoulder the burdens. It is not a wise leadership." Wise leadership will understand Albert Schweitzer's call for an ethic of bonheur oblige - good fortune obligates. When people or nations are blessed with talent, luck, good fortune, I believe they have a special responsibility to give back into the common pool of humanity - out of gratitude as well as responsibility.And so, I am afraid that until we heed the wise words of the contemporary fictional prophet Spock and the powerful words of the ancient prophet Amos, our world will continue to be in trouble. "Woe to those who sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes." It was true then; it is true now.