Nike, the company that says it sells more than 13 percent of its shoes to minorities, has no black person sitting on its board of directors. It has no black vice presidents. It consults no black advertising agencies. It doesn't spend one dollar advertising on Black Entertainment Television or in Ebony magazine. So PUSH, the Chicago-based civil rights group, has called for a boycott until Nike can come up with some solutions.
Nike also is the preferred shoe company of Michael Jordan, Bo Jackson, Spike Lee, John Thompson and now David Robinson -- meaning Nike has no problem using black men -- two of them no strangers to controversy -- to pitch athletic equipment to anybody who will listen, black or white. Nike gives money to the United Negro College Fund, to the Black Colleges Conferences, the NAACP, the Oregon Council for Hispanic Advancement, the Midnight Basketball League in Chicago, the Leak and Watts Children's Center in New York, the Developmental Basketball League in Philadelphia and the Chicago Youth Center at the Cabrini Green Projects.
Nike awarded construction or manufacturing contracts to 18 minority companies in conjunction with one project in Portland, Ore. And Nike has put up more than $1 million for a program called "Just Do It: Stay in School," which grants cash to teachers who design and implement effective dropout-prevention programs. That's not lip service; that's commitment, more than most corporations have dreamed of. So, naturally enough, Nike doesn't understand this boycott.
Neither do I. Not yet, anyway. A boycott ought to be the last resort, and it doesn't appear that PUSH exhausted or even examined all the ways to effectively deal with the shoe-manufacturing giant, which clearly needs to improve its minority input at the executive level but also has contributed generously to minority causes -- too much so to dismiss because of an ill-advised negotiating stance.
Before asking Jordan, Lee, Thompson, etc., for their support in this boycott, PUSH should have asked for their help in resolving this issue. Thompson, we know for sure, has regular dialogue with Nike. His recommendations are taken seriously. One of his former players, D.C.'s own Gene Smith, is in corporate management and has been entrusted by Nike with setting up operations all over the world, literally. One of his former student managers Andre Hawkins is moving up the ladder in Nike's basketball promotions division.
Lee isn't simply a pitchman; he has creative control over his messages for Nike. Before calling a boycott -- and the timing didn't seem to call for any immediate acion -- PUSH should have exhausted every means possible to sit with Lee, Thompson, etc., and plot some strategy.
Thompson was on the telephone yesterday afternoon trying to get both parties back together for some discussion. The bet here is that Thompson will have Jesse Jackson (who founded PUSH) sitting face-to-face with Nike Chairman Philip Knight by the middle of next week. If PUSH had been interested, Thompson could have been dialing Nike before the boycott was called.
Still, Nike's arrogance in dealing with PUSH may prove to be regrettable; there was no need for the shoe company to question the PUSH constituency or the organization's right to ask questions, skeptically, about Nike's policies in regard to South Africa or why there are no blacks sitting on the board of directors. In other words, when PUSH asked, "Why do you use black people to sell your shoes, take money from black people who buy your shoes, but refuse to let a black man have a voice as a member of the board of directors?" PUSH should have had some answers or been ready to talk until dawn to find them.
It is possible that Thompson, Jordan, Jackson and Lee could have talked to Nike until they were blue in the face and gotten nowhere. I doubt it. In those four men, you're talking about one of the greatest basketball coaches, the greatest basketball player, one of the greatest all-around athletes ever and one of the hottest filmmakers in the world.
If Nike can't reach some meeting of the minds with those men, Nike has a BIG problem. A public relations nightmare. Can you imagine Nike upsetting Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, literally their advertising meal tickets? Nope, I can't. Bad PR is bad for business. The shoe war is a nasty one, as Nike's silly suggestion that PUSH would sell out for a $6,000-print ad demonstrates.
At a meeting with reporters yesterday morning, Jesse Jackson was asked what he expects from the black celebrities who pitch for Nike. "I expect them," he said, "to use their leverage at this point to change those policies." It's too bad PUSH didn't think of that first.
Thompson and Lee have had a bigger effect on black images, arguably, than anybody in America. To not allow them -- make that encourage them -- to use their considerable leverage (in favor of a boycott) is the wrong move.
Part of the criticism being leveled at Nike is so misguided it is alarming. Too many blacks act as if Lee, Jordan, Thompson and Bo Jackson shouldn't pitch for Nike. Obviously, they've forgotten that people (including PUSH throughout the '70s) demonstrated, even boycotted to force white-owned companies to spread millions of corporate advertising dollars to black people who used their products.
Now, they have the audacity to complain that those black celebrities are being used as race manipulators. One result of decades worth of struggle in the business world is that blacks can now effectively advertise to blacks, and whites, too. But people with short memories somehow see that as a form of exploitation instead of what it really is, progress.
Of course it won't do for Nike to stop at commercial endorsements, not with its management hierarchy untouched by black input. If Nike is as willing to act upon some of the improvements PUSH is seeking as it has been to implement advertising campaigns that cross racial lines, dialogue -- not a boycott -- is still in order.