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Clash of the Titans

June 11, 2010

Before he leaves to head the nation’s premier sports governing body, Mark Emmert may have a showdown with the world’s leading athletics apparel provider.

Emmert, who now serves president of the University of Washington and will soon become chief of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has been urged not to renew the university’s licensing agreement with Nike. In a Tuesday letter to the president, the university’s Advisory Committee on Trademarks and Licensing relayed its unanimous decision that the agreement be severed, barring a satisfactory resolution to an ongoing labor dispute between Nike and Honduran workers.

“[The Committee] feels strongly that we have waited long enough for Nike to meet its responsibility [regarding] workers in its supply chain,” wrote Margaret Levi, co-chair of the committee and a professor of international studies. “We urge you to accept our advice.”

The committee, which previously pressed Emmert to find Nike in violation of the university’s code of conduct, includes student, faculty and staff representatives. While its recommendations are advisory, Emmert has followed the committee’s suggestions in the past.

When the University of Wisconsin at Madison became the first university to end its Nike agreement over the Honduran worker dispute, Chancellor Biddy Martin did so at the behest of the university’s labor licensing committee -- the equivalent of the group now encouraging Emmert to do the same.

Washington’s contract with Nike ends December 2010, a month after Emmert is slated to begin his new duties as president of the NCAA. Whether Emmert will make the decision or leave it to his successor at Washington is unclear, a university spokesman said Thursday.

“He’s not come to any decisions,” said Norman Arkans, associate vice president for communications. “I have no idea how long he’s going to take to think about it, but that’s up to him.”

Many of the NCAA's members, and the NCAA itself, have licensing agreements with Nike. Additionally, Nike is a founding sponsor of iHoops, a youth basketball program run by the NCAA and the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Asked whether his future position as head of the NCAA added any gravity to Emmert's decision over Washington's contract, Arkans said "that's for somebody else to speculate."

"He's still president of the University of Washington, and he is acting right up until his last day as the president of the University of Washington," he said. "He has responsibilities here."

Emmert’s future with the NCAA is just one of the interesting twists at Washington. The university’s provost, Phyllis Wise, recently became a member of Nike’s corporate board, drawing some criticism from students and faculty who decry the company’s labor practices. Orin Smith, who has served on Nike’s board since 2004, is also a member of the university’s board of regents.

The regents have yet to say whether Wise will step in as interim president when Emmert departs, but as the second-in-command it would be unsurprising for her to take on the role. Even if she does become interim chief, Wise would continue to recuse herself from decisions about Nike, just as she does now as provost, Arkans said.

“It will be another university official with the authority to make that decision,” he said.

It would be unfortunate, however, if circumstances necessitated such a weighty decision about Nike being made at a lower administrative level, said Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, director of the university's Center for Human Rights.

“I think it’s imperative that this be a presidential-level decision,” she said.

“I don’t question [Wise’s] sincerity in recusing herself,” Godoy added. “But if she’s in a position supervising others who are tasked with [deciding on the Nike agreement] and she sits on Nike’s board, it creates a situation that looks an awful lot to me like a conflict of interest.”

Asked about the committee's recommendation, a Nike spokeswoman said Thursday that the company "greatly values its relationship with the University of Washington." Erin Patterson, the spokeswoman, went on to say in an e-mail that the company had not violated the university's conduct code because "no university branded product" was produced at either of the two Honduras-based companies that have generated controversy over labor practices. While Nike did receive a one-time order of college apparel from a contractor who subcontracted with Vision Tex, none of the product was University of Washington-branded apparel and none was delivered to Washington, Nike officials said. [Clarification added based on additional information provided by Nike].

Washington’s ties to Nike have prompted protests from United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), and the organization was quick to say Thursday that the committee’s letter represented a test for the university to prove its administrators’ ties to the company truly aren’t a conflict.

“If President Emmert doesn't drop the UW's Nike contract, I think the most lasting impact will be national attention to the UW as a case study of corporate control of a public university, since anti-sweatshop issues aren't going away anytime soon,” Rod Palmquist, a spokesman for USAS, wrote in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed.

Nike has been under fire from labor groups for years, but the catalytic event that’s caused such a backlash at Washington involves two of Nike’s supplier factories, Hugger de Honduras and Vision Tex, in Honduras. The Worker Rights Consortium, which counts Washington among its member universities, found that the factories closed without paying workers who were legally mandated severance totalling more than $2 million.

Nike has responded by offering training and vocational programs, but the company maintains it bears no financial liability.

“Nike is absolutely concerned for the workers in Honduras and we are deeply disappointed that the two failed sub-contract factories did not pay the workers their full severance pay,” the company said in April. “However, it remains Nike’s position that factories which directly employ workers are responsible for ensuring that their employees receive their correct entitlements and as such Nike will not be paying severance to workers that were employed by Hugger and Vision Tex.”

For Washington’s advisory committee, the response from Nike thus far has been insufficient. In its letter to Emmert, the committee said the contract should only be renewed if the workers “receive the terminal compensation owed them under Honduran law” or reach a legitimate settlement agreement.

The university’s stand on the Nike issue is “hugely important” to sending a message to the company, Godoy said.

“I would say Nike’s conduct in this case has been abysmal, and I’m not only referring to the [university conduct code] violation itself,” she said. “What I think is particularly abysmal has been their response to that situation. They’ve essentially done nothing of significance to change the situation of workers on the ground.”

 

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