Although we find the Daily”s Dec. 12 editorial “Athletic Freedom: Contracts inhibit freedom to protest” noble, its premise is based in unrealistic idealism as editors and chairs of the Daily”s editorial board, we must respect the Daily”s laudable precedent of supporting freedom of speech and the majority vote of the board, we also have a responsibility to point out errors in argument when appropriate. Now is one of these times.
In the editorial, the board argues that the University”s athletic apparel contract with Nike stifles a student athlete”s right to protest the shoe-giant. There are, however, some pertinent points the Daily overlooked in its argument.
When the University re-signed with Nike for an exclusive seven-year partnership last year, the fine print prohibited the University or its athletes from doing anything to deface the Nike “Swoosh” logo, or anything else to defame the company. This makes sense. When two partners enter into an agreement, it is logical that one partner will not do anything to harm the other.
Such logic gets called into question when people are affected by contracts that they had no role in negotiating, as is the case with student athletes. Perhaps then-President Lee C. Bollinger and others involved in contract negotiations can be barred from covering the “Swoosh” in public, but certainly not the athletes right?
These types of good-faith arguments rest on the idea that student athletes are forced to play. Loss of scholarships may be seen as an implicit threat, but that line of reasoning is tenuous at best. The fact is that student athletes voluntarily sign on to a contract of their own with the University when they decide to play – and a major provision of the contract between the University and student athletes is the granting of certain managerial decisions to the University. Among those is the decision on what to wear and how to wear it. This isn”t an infringement of civil rights it”s a protection of property rights.
In agreeing to outfit University sports teams, Nike is offering its product not just as clothing but also as advertising. The argument extends to this as well: Private advertisements have no place in a public institution. The University, since it receives government funds, cannot pass off any officially-sanctioned ideologies to its students. Although the number of instances of private companies using public institutions for advertising (how many high school football scoreboards sport the Coke logo?), the most compelling example of private industry being “pushed” into the public sector is that of Channel One.
Channel One, as many University students may remember, is a television news network seen in thousands of secondary schools public and private across the nation. Through the contract, Channel One outfits schools with television sets in every classroom in exchange for schools allocating 12 minutes per day for mandatory viewing of the news program. Channel One has essentially become part of the curriculum, and students are “forced” to watch the news program including the advertisements for the likes of 7-Up and Gatorade. Channel One is owned by the private Primedia, Inc, and officially aligned with ABC News.
The Channel One situation is a close analogy to the current Nike contracts. In exchange for some merchandise (televisions and sports uniforms, respectively), the relative government institutions assure the corporations of visibility (in the classroom or on the playing field). Neither case infringes on the civil rights of students.
So why does Nike become an issue?
In the soap opera-like drama that unfolded in the months and weeks before Bollinger and Athletic Department Director Bill Martin re-signed with Nike, the University was left without an athletic outfitter. When the University re-signed with Nike last year, one of its arguments for doing so was that the shoe-giant provides Michigan athletic teams with quality apparel. Student athletes, the University argued, would rather be with outfitted with shoes and other gear from Nike, rather than from another retailer.
Unfortunately, the deal left many student activists with a bad taste in their mouths, since concerns over Nike”s labor practices did not seem to be fully considered by the University. Nike”s use of sweatshop labor in developing nations was and still is a valid sticking point between the University administration and student activists, who demanded that the University use its contract to force Nike to align itself with strict labor codes.
Since then, Nike has become the Dr. Claw to student activists” Inspector Gadget. To the Daily”s editorial board, the freedom of speech issue is an extension of activists” desire to vilify Nike at any and every turn. Whereas the labor rights issue are noble and admirable, the freedom of speech issue ends up looking like nitpicking and worse yet, nitpicking that doesn”t have any legal grounds.
Furthermore, the freedom of speech issue would have some weight if it came from those affected the student athletes. Since student athletes are generally apathetic in regard to the socio-economic ramifications of what they are wearing, it is not a surprise that there haven”t been any reported cases of Michigan athletes being persecuted by coaches or the athletic department administration for covering up the “Swoosh” on their shoes, warm-ups or jerseys.
If there would be an incident where a student athlete wanted to protest Nike by defacing the “Swoosh,” than that should serve as a wake-up call to the administration about students” right to protest. If student athletes are adamant about their rights to protest Nike by covering up the “Swoosh” or, as a stronger statement, quitting the team the University would be compelled to listen and figure out a way to wean itself off of Nike.
Unless labor activists infiltrate the ranks of the football, field hockey or swimming teams, this will never happen. While student athletics is unfortunately more about making money for the University and increasing institutional prestige these days, we cannot expect student athletes to be civil libertarians. Since we as a community expect our student athletes to perform in the arena, stadium, field or pool for the betterment of the University, we cannot expect athletics to be a forum about the First Amendment. The Daily”s editorial board believes otherwise.
Student activists are myopically attacking Nike without considering the much larger issue of the economics of intercollegiate athletics, which warrants close examination. Intercollegiate athletics have, in recent decades, become much more about budgets and profits than about the actual athletic competition. If student activists wish to reform Nike, they must consider the environment through which Nike became such a powerful partner in Ann Arbor.
This is not a totally foreign concept. Even former University President James J. Duderstadt has been outspoken on the subject. He believes the corporatization of intercollegiate athletics has been a detriment to the educational missions of universities. Once the larger issue of universities” dependence on corporate sponsorship is solved, the tangential “freedom of speech” ones will become non-issues. Bill Martin may not agree, but it”s a worthy point of exploration.
In the meantime, let the student athletes compete under the current legal contract while the University administration work with labor activists to come up with a better athletic apparel contract down the line.
Michael Grass is co-editorial page editor. Manish Raiji is a columnist and an associate editorial page editor. Both are LSA seniors.