As the high school instructor writes on the blackboard, football players dotted throughout the classroom couldn't seem less interested. One taps the player in front of him, to get his attention, and another works diligently to turn a piece of paper into a triangularly shaped "football." Then, as he paces the room, knocking one player's sneaker-clad foot off the seat in front of him, the instructor asks, "Can anyone tell me what happened to Napoleon when he tried to invade Russia?" Silence fills the room.
When the bell rings, the students flood into the hallway, where the announcer on the loudspeaker mixes in mention of "the big game tonight" with that day's lunch specials. As the players walk down the hall, they are treated like celebrities: Students wish them luck, and a young blonde woman virtually coos her hello.
The scene unfolds at the start of a Nike commercial that debuted this football season -- a commercial that, in case anyone missed the point, ends after an on-the-field triumph with the tag line: "Football is everything."
Now, Nike did not get to be the dominant shoe manufacturer/cultural powerhouse that it is purely because it makes good equipment: Its in-your-face and often humorous ads have helped propel it to the top of the apparel food chain. But every so often -- as is the case with this advertisement -- one person's edgy and funny can seriously rub other people the wrong way.
Last month, Thomas G. Palaima, Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a column in the Austin American Statesman that took issue with the ad, which he said is "not consistent with what we stand for" as a university that is supposed to value education above all else.
"The message is, 'Don't worry about what goes on in the classroom, knowing things, that's not important,' " Palaima says in an interview. "Go out and score a touchdown, that's what matters in life. To have this kind of message promulgated, even as a secondary message, runs counter to the principles we stand for as an institution." (Palaima notes that Texas, like dozens of big-time sports powers, has a strong relationship and profitable sponsorship agreement with the apparel manufacturer. "When you walk through the apparel section of our bookstore, it's Nike Nike Nike, UT sports, UT sports, UT sports," he says. "Nike is UT Sports -- UT Sports are Nike. They are inseparable.")
Palaima, who heads Texas' program in Aegean scripts and prehistory, might be tempting to write off as a tweedy academic or an athletics hater. But while he has criticized the role of sports at the university and in academe generally, he has the ear of officials in the athletics department, and when he complained to them about the Nike ads, they paid attention.
Chris Plonsky, women's athletics director and director of external services for Texas' men's and women's athletics departments, called Nike officials and told them that "we had to agree with our faculty members' concerns," she says. While she emphasizes that the ad was "a spoof" that was "meant to be funny" -- and that she and others thought most of the ad was, like most of Nike's advertisements, well done -- the first few seconds that unfold in the classroom were "inappropriate" and "hit a nerve."
"We live in this world, we know why they're upset," Plonsky says. "We all constantly fight that notion of the myth of, '[Athletes] don't care about academics.' If we were controlling our imagery, we would not have depicted anything close to that. It's the antithesis of what we teach every day."
Texas officials were not the only ones who expressed concern. The co-chairmen of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which has pushed sports reforms for more than 15 years, sent the company a letter last month complaining about the ad, which they copied to administrators at many of the colleges with which Nike works. The company last week sent a reply of its own to the commission chairs, R. Gerald Turner, president of Southern Methodist University, and Clifton R. Wharton Jr., former chairman of TIAA-CREF, and to the college officials who had been copied on the Knight letter.
The Nike letter, from Joaquin Hidalgo, vice president for global marketing, said the company regretted that the classroom vignette had offended members of the panel. "We admittedly sought to create a playful, somewhat humorous ad that showed a range of experiences of a high school athlete on game day," Hidalgo wrote. (The ad's humor derives in part from injecting big-time professional athletes into a supposedly high school setting; among the stars spotted in the hallways and on the sidelines are Michael Vick, Brian Urlacher and Matt Leinart, and the team is coached by Hall of Famer Don Shula. The teacher in the classroom: Jimmy Johnson, former coach of the Dallas Cowboys.)
"The very inclusion of a classroom setting in the ad was a deliberate acknowledgment that student-athletes must succeed in both arenas -- sports and education -- in order to have healthy balance and fulfill their potential," Hidalgo continued. "However, when game time arrives, 'Football Is Everything' is the ethos these athletes adopt in order to compete to win. This was not designed to be a 'documentary-style' ad intended to depict football players as unintelligent. We join you in rejecting that unfair stereotype."
The letter also notes that the campaign has nearly run its course (having garnered "almost no recorded complaints"), and that as a result, "we hope you agree that no further action is necessary."
A spokesman for Nike, Dean Stoyer, said in an interview Wednesday that the company took the complaints "very seriously." "We know how important this is. Obviously we struck a nerve, and we wanted to make sure people knew where we stand."
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