Operation PUSH founder Jesse L. Jackson said yesterday the athletes defending the Nike Inc. sportswear company against a black consumer boycott are victims of "race manipulation" and should "use their leverage" as spokesmen for the product to win concessions from the manufacturer.

During a meeting with reporters, Jackson spoke at length about Chicago-based Operation PUSH's decision to call for a Nike boycott after negotiations on affirmative action and investment matters fell apart last week. Since the boycott was announced, leading sports figures, including Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson and Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan, both employed by Nike, have defended the company's commitment to minority investment.

Jackson charged that Nike has turned the negotiation into an attack on Operation PUSH and its motives. PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity) has previously sponsored boycotts to win minority participation "covenants" from companies such as Coca-Cola and Burger King.

Jackson said Thompson, Jordan, filmmaker Spike Lee and baseball-football star Bo Jackson, who all have lucrative endorsement contracts with Nike, are not the ones who should be responding to the PUSH complaints.

"Athletes can speak for the shoes, because they wear them," Jesse Jackson said. "That's what gives them legitimacy. They cannot speak for the corporate policy because they're not a part of that. So to ask them to speak for the corporate policy is . . . kind of race manipulation."

Thompson, who serves on a Nike coach's advisory board and earns $200,000 a year from the company, said yesterday that he respects both Jackson and Nike chairman Philip H. Knight and is attempting to arrange a meeting between the two.

Knight has described the dispute as "a fight between Nike and PUSH," not between Nike and the black community.

"It's a little senseless to try to take a side, as much as you want to bring two people together for a sensible conversation," Thompson said. "It's irrelevant what side you're on. Sometimes it's good for two people to kind of say, 'Hello, oh you're the guy I'm fussing with.' "

Jackson said Nike has no black directors on its board, does no business with black-owned advertising agencies and deposits no money in black-owned banks. He also said the firm would not reveal whether it has any financial interests in South Africa.

Nike officials have said it already devotes 75 percent of its charity spending to "minority-oriented" projects and that 14.4 percent of its workforce is minority. After learning that Reebok International Ltd. -- Nike's prime competitor -- had purchased a $6,000 ad in PUSH's magazine last month, the Oregon company broke off negotiations and turned the tables, asking PUSH to provide details of its financial backing and supporters.

"Bo knows baseball and Bo knows football . . . ," Jackson said, paraphrasing a well-known Nike advertising campaign. "Bo knows business too. And Bo knows decision-making. But in Nike's structure Bo has not been able to penetrate that wall."

Jesse Jackson said he has talked to Lee and Thompson about his concerns and they have agreed to make inquiries about Nike's minority investment policies. He said Thompson should be placed on Nike's board. Thompson, who attended Nike's last board of directors meeting and said he has had considerable input into the company's workings, disagreed.

"I think it's Nike's right to determine that," he said. "Nobody's going to tell me what to do at Georgetown -- black or white."