Part of the problem in Nike's larger public relations, in commercials featuring Sanders and a number of other athletes, was that these commercials tended to reflect an important part of the company culture, that of being mavericks and upstarts ready to take on the rest of the world. After all, Knight started the company in his home, using a waffle iron to make sneakers designed by his old track coach, and at first he had gone from track meet to track meet selling his shoes out of his car. That was still the way he saw himself--a little guy taking on the big guys. The Nike guys liked to see themselves as "outlaws with morals," as one consultant who worked with the company said. So when Deion Sanders poured a bucket of ice cold water on an unsuspecting and fully clothed baseball announcer, Tim McCarver, because McCarver had questioned Sanders's athletic loyalty as he jockeyed back and forth between football and baseball in the midst of baseball playoff games (apparently encouraged by Nike, which paid for the helicopters that got him to and from games), no one at Nike seemed at all upset. In their opinion, Sanders was just a Nike guy doing a Nike kind of thing.
But by the late nineties Nike was no longer a little guy taking on big guys; it was a very big guy whose reach and logo seemed to be everywhere, not just a multinational giant, but more like a huge octopus with tentacles that reached everywhere into the sports world. Its swoosh symbol seemed to be omnipresent, and its power--the immense sums it paid college coaches in order to be the sneaker and uniform provider of choice, caused a great deal of uneasiness among traditionalists in sports. Inevitably, because of its own high visibility and the singular visibility of its athletes, it became the ideal target for critics concerned with the broader issue of the labor practices of American multinationals in poor, third world countries. Charges of unacceptably low pay, unsafe working conditions, and exploitation of child labor were aimed against the company in general, and against Jordan in particular as the Nike poster boy. The Nike factories in Vietnam, where wages were said to be under two dollars a day, came under special criticism.
The furor seemed to bewilder Jordan, who, like other celebrities caught in the name brand apparel game, never thought that the easy affluence his endorsements brought him would or should have that kind of a downside, nor that he would become a target of pickets for allegedly exploiting children in some far-off country. A series of cartoons mocking both Jordan and Nike soon appeared in the comic strip "Doonesbury." There was talk in the spring of 1998 that Jordan might visit the Vietnam factories in the summer with a select media entourage, a trip that would produce great television footage and comparable pro-company spin. By the early fall that trip seemed to be postponed indefinitely.
If there was anyone more bewildered than Jordan by the furor it was Knight himself. Asia had long fascinated him. Long ago he had sensed the rising importance of that region not just as a market but, more important, as a challenger to traditional Western economic hegemony. He saw himself as both pioneer and visionary in a new world order in which the importance of Western Europe declined and that of Asia and the Pacific Rim ascended, someone who had seen the future before anyone else, or at least long before most other American CEOs. He did not respond well to charges that he was less a visionary of the future than he was an exploiter of the present. His early responses to these charges were remarkably insensitive, in no small part because he was so sure that Nike was good for these countries. In time, he made the mistake of granting an interview to Michael Moore, the irreverent filmmaker. Perhaps Knight thought they were fellow mavericks, soulmates who wanted the same thing. The segment, in a film called The Big One, was a disaster for Knight and Nike. Among other things it featured Moore inviting Knight to open a factory in Flint, Michigan, one of America's most depressed former industrial sites, rather than opening yet another factory in some village in Asia. In May 1998, realizing finally that much of the world did not see his company or his economic practices the way he saw them, he announced significant changes in Nike's overseas production. Its Asian factories would meet American health and safety standards, and the minimum age for new workers would be moved to eighteen from sixteen. He did not mention any increase in pay for workers, a likely future sticking point.
Excerpted from Playing for Keeps by David Halberstam. Copyright© 1999 by The Amateurs Limited; Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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