Only three months after the signing of an eight-year contract between the University and Adidas, Michigan is at risk of violating its own code of conduct on labor rights. The labor practices at some factories subcontracted by Adidas have come under fire at both the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of California at Berkeley. Given that the contracts at that those two universities have with Adidas as well as their codes of conduct on labor rights are very similar to Michigan’s own, our university’s decision to sign with Adidas over the summer was clearly not an informed one. Administrators must reconsider the Adidas contract to avoid breaking their own rules, and the process by which these decisions are made must be made more open so that mistakes like this can be avoided in the future.

The decision to sign a $60 million contract with Adidas belonged solely to the University’s Athletic Department. Adidas offered the department significantly more money than it received in its previous deal with Nike. Citing that the increased revenue would help finance many projects – like the renovation of Crisler Arena – and the fact that the contract allows the University to investigate labor standards in Adidas’s factories, the Athletic Department hailed the contract as a success on all levels. That sounded too good to be true, and it turns out that it was.

While the University does have the power to inspect labor practices at Adidas’s factories, it has no incentive to do so under the current system. If violations are found, the University would face the choice of cutting a brand new contract and losing a lot of money, or looking hypocritical by keeping the contract despite the violations. Now that the University of Wisconsin has found “serious concerns” after its investigation of Adidas’s factories, the University of Michigan faces just that choice. So far, it has taken the hypocritical route, and all the money that comes with it.

Looking just a little bit into Adidas’s track record could have helped the University avoid this dilemma: As recently as 2006, Adidas was accused of using child labor in factories in Pakistan where the official FIFA World Cup game balls were produced. The truth is that both companies subcontract their labor to the same factories, and it’s na’ve to expect switching from one to the other to make any difference. Had the decision of signing this contract been brought before the larger university community – at a University Board of Regents meeting, for example – such issues would have been brought up and further problems could have been avoided.

Before Michigan’s contract with Nike was implemented in the 1990s, athletic apparel was subcontracted to local companies, enabling the University to ensure that it was doing business only with companies with fair labor practices. Another benefit of that system was that it brought more business to local companies, creating jobs and providing a boost to the economy. At least a partial reversion to that system is possible and preferable. Perhaps if the contracts are discussed in an open forum, this and other innovative solutions could be presented.

So far, the only solution on the large scale is to partner with the Worker Rights Consortium, a third-party organization that independently investigating factories. Partnering with WRC means doing business only with those companies that use factories that have been approved by the WRC. The University balked at such restrictions in recent months because of a purpoted lack of autonomy. But if the University cannot enforce its code of conduct, the WRC is a much better alternative to the status quo. After all, with autonomy come responsibilities and so far, the University has not lived up to them.

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