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Kaepernick ad opposition calls into question universities', school districts' Nike apparel decisions

Nathan Baker • Sep 11, 2018 at 11:15 PM

A state senator who called for a review of public universities’ contracts with athletic equipment maker Nike after the company released a politically charged ad will easily find that many of the state’s institutions deal with the global corporation.

What may be more difficult is severing all ties between state schools and companies that have taken social stances.

In a Sept. 7 tweet, Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixon, announced he had asked the Office of Legislative Budget Analysis to review state-financed colleges and universities with Nike contracts and report its findings. The senator’s tweet was in response to a posting by television and radio personality Sean Hannity about a decision at Missouri’s College of the Ozarks to remove all Nike branded athletic uniforms in response to an advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick, the professional football player who knelt during the national anthem last season in protest of racial injustice.

Watson, currently running for re-election to his District 11 Senate seat, said in a video posted to his Twitter account Monday he believes companies’ public social statements should be considered when publicly funded institutions are considering contracting with them in the future.

“I think Nike has raised the conversation of, when we look to renew or extend these contracts, should we look at what positions companies take in the social world?” he said. “There has been a lot of discussion now on social impact and what that means in the business community, so when the state of Tennessee, through its flagship universities or other universities, engages in a contractural relationship with a company that is making social statements, do those social statements, are they consistent with Tennessee and Tennesseans? and I think that’s a fair review for the Finance Committee to make.”

The questions from constituents Watson said he received were likely about the University of Tennessee, which has an 11-year apparel contract with Nike that Forbes ranked as the 17th Most Valuable College Apparel Deal, but athletes at many of the state’s other schools, including universities and grade schools, put on Nike branded uniforms when they take the field.

At the college level, athletes at the University of Tennessee, Middle Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis and East Tennessee State University wear Nike apparel during sporting events. Some of Tennessee Technological University’s teams wear Nike, like the cross country and basketball teams, but others, like the football team and women’s soccer team wear apparel branded by Nike’s competitor, Adidas. Austin Peay University appears to cater only to Under Armour and Tennessee State University’s athletes only wear Adidas.

Some of those schools, like the University of Tennessee and MTSU, have exclusive contracts with Nike, while others, like ETSU, contract with a third party, in ETSU’s case athletic equipment company BSN Sports, and receive discounts on Nike apparel and equipment.

ETSU’s one-year contract with BSN allows for up to $500,000 in athletic gear and allows for a list of Nike products for general athletics, the men’s and women’s basketball teams and the football team. General athletics are allotted  $20,000 in Nike product under the agreement; the men’s basketball team receive 50 pairs of Nike shoes, 24 travel bags, 24 warmups and Nike products for camps and the coaches; the women’s basketball team get 20 pairs of shoes, 12 Nike basketballs and 20 travel bags and 20 warmups; and the football team receives $25,000 in Nike product, $15,000 in Nike ELITE product and 400 camp T-shirts. The university also operates under a pricing schedule for Nike products that provides discounts on apparel, practice gear, equipment, footwear, custom uniforms and modified custom apparel.

Local districts, including Johnson City Schools, operate under similar contracts with third-party equipment providers, according Debra Bentley, the district’s Director of Instruction and Communications.

Like ETSU, Science Hill High School contracts with BSN Sports. The school does not have an exclusive contract with Nike, but buys Nike apparel and equipment because the company offers discounts to the district. Bentley said the high school does sometimes buy other brands of equipment and apparel from BSN when the prices for those items are less.

Other high schools in the area, including David Crockett and Daniel Boone high schools, also wear Nike-branded uniforms, but a Washington County Schools spokesperson did not return requests for comments for this story.

Watson on Monday said local school districts’ relationships with Nike should also be examined, but he didn’t go as far as to request a review by the state’s Office of Legislative Budget Analysis.

State Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, said he didn’t want to comment on Watson’s motivations for calling for the review, but said he thinks the request is normal.

“What he’s asking is are there any tax dollars being spent or money generated and where’s that money going?” Hill said Tuesday. “If it’s a private contract that involves taxpayer dollars, then it’s ordinary for legislators to request a review of that.”

Hill said he believed it was unlikely that the information generated by the review would be used to pass legislation preventing public universities from entering into contracts with Nike.

The ad that sparked Watson’s interest in state Nike contracts is narrated by Kaepernick and features him, LeBron James and Serena Williams. In the ad, Kaepernick, who is now a free agent and not signed with any NFL team, says “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

After its release, it brought scattered protests and calls for boycotts of Nike products across the country.

Even if the state were to distance itself from Nike products at its universities, finding a company to provide equipment and apparel that hasn’t taken a political stance in the past few years may be challenging.

In 2016, both Nike and Adidas signed an open letter asking President Donald Trump to acknowledge the threat of manmade global warming and to keep Obama-era environmental protections in place. Last year, media outlets also reported a statement from Adidas in opposition to the president’s ban on immigrants from several Muslim-marjority countries.

Under Armour found itself under fire last year after founder and CEO Kevin Plank praised what he called the president’s pro-business philosophy.

Business experts expect more businesses will being taking political and social stands as they attempt to cater to younger demographics, which value companies that make public statements about policy.

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