While we jump all over Kathie Lee Gifford, let's not forget who took game to new heights


ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a shoe company in far-off Oregon. And this shoe company decided to pick an athlete as the centerpiece of its ad campaign.

The shoe company was Nike.

The player was Michael Jordan.

As it turned out, Jordan became the best, and most famous, basketball player in the world.

And Phil Knight, who runs Nike, would come to own $4.5 billion worth of Nike stock.

It's a beautiful story in which boy meets shoe, shoe sells in the millions at unseemly prices and everyone gets rich, if you don't count the kids who buy them and the people in faraway lands who make them. Don't worry, nobody is counting them.

This is a story of American know-how, of advertising genius, of an athlete and his shoe company developing a relationship so enduring that during the 1992 Olympics, Jordan staged a demonstration at the gold-medal ceremony because the Dream Team had to wear a Reebok warmup suit. Jordan and several of his teammates draped an American flag over the Reebok symbol. Message One: What's good for Nike is good for America.

Jordan makes $20 million a year for his work for Nike. No wonder he's so loyal. And now, every famous athlete you can name works for Nike, unless he works for Reebok or some other shoe company.

What's the point of this little lesson in shoe leather? The point is that Kathie Lee Gifford, or as one critic calls her, Kathie "Me" Gifford, doesn't have a shoe contract. She does, however, have the Kathie Lee Gifford line of clothing, sold at Wal-Mart.

As you must have noticed, Gifford has been spending much of her time on TV crying -- which, for me, beats the time when she's singing -- because she learned that her clothes were made in Honduran sweatshops where women work as long as 20 hours a day for the princely sum of 31 cents an hour.

She stopped crying for the poor Hondurans just long enough to learn that some of her clothes were also made in sweatshops right there in New York City, just a few blocks away from where she and Regis do their own kind of sweating.

Gifford is easy to make fun of. She sent her husband, Frank, out to the factory to give each of the employees three $100 bills, as if this made everything all right. But at least she was trying. And probably, as she claims, she had no idea who was sewing her line of clothes and how much money they were or were not paid.

But she should have known. Wal-Mart must have known. As Labor Secretary Robert Reich points out, there's a very simple formula: If a company buys clothes at a bargain price from a subcontractor, chances are that the subcontractor isn't paying his employees fairly. The only way not to know is to turn your head or avert your eyes.

Which brings us back to Nike and to Michael Jordan. You probably won't be averting your eyes tonight when Jordan and the Chicago Bulls attempt to wrap up the most successful season in pro basketball history.

If you're a basketball fan, it's easy to be an awe of Jordan, who plays the game as no one ever played it before.

We want to be like Mike (as the Gatorade ad says).

He's famous the world over. But I wonder how they feel about him in, say, certain parts of Indonesia.

Nike is very big in Indonesia, but not because they play much hoop there. Nike is big in Indonesia because it's a country where many people have no choice but to work for practically nothing.

According to Bob Herbert's column in the New York Times, Nike's Indonesian workers earn as little as $2.20 a day. At $20 million a year, Jordan's daily take from Nike is $54,794.

Bear with me while I do a little more math. At the rate of $2.20 a day, it would take an Indonesian worker 68 years to make as much as Jordan makes from Nike in one day.

Jordan cannot plead ignorance. When he was asked about this the other week, he said: "I don't know the complete situation. Why should I? I'm trying to do my job. Hopefully, Nike will do the right thing, whatever that might be."

And here's the sad part. For someone like Jordan, it's easy to do the right thing. He makes something like $50 million a year. He can drop Nike and never even feel it. If Jordan wanted to -- and he's that powerful -- he could say he'd work only for a company that paid fair wages. Believe me, someone would take him on and make a whole ad campaign around it.

He won't, though. "Why should I?" he says.

And so when you watch him tonight, you can admire what he does. Heck, some poeple even admire what Kathie Lee Gifford does.

But before you decide you really want to be like Mike (or, for that matter, Phil Knight), think a moment about the people who make the shoes.

Think about them before you strap on your next pair of Air Jordans.

As the Nike ad says, just do it.

Pub Date: 6/12/96

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