Talk of the Town - Just shut up July 15 2000

Nike talks trash in issue ads

Nike's advertising folks may have taken the brand to the top with one slam-dunk after another but, this summer, the guys in the Swoosh shoes are throwing up nothing but bricks. In a series of TV spots starring sprinter Marion Jones, Nike vows to "take on tough issues in sports." Each ad covers a different topic, with "Mrs. Jones" sitting behind a microphone and dispensing all sorts of pretentious prattle. How this is supposed to sell shoes is anybody's guess.

In one ad, Mrs. Jones tells athletes to stop "the drug use, the spousal abuse, the violence." Only problem here is that 99.9 percent of those listening aren't wife-beating cokeheads in sports.

This appeal reminds me of those "Take Back the Night" protests by college women's groups. I mean, I'm all for women's safety, but the annual candlelight ritual seems pointless. After all, the only people who favor violence are thugs, and I doubt the shouting and marching much fazes them.

In another ad, Mrs. Jones says critics should lay off basketball phenoms who go straight from high school to the NBA. Here, she's right. Anyone able to score a star's ransom without risking collegiate injury should be left alone. Nike, unfortunately, tosses race into the mix, with Mrs. Jones complaining that kids skipping college to play other sports aren't similarly criticized.

In a spot titled "No Love," Mrs. Jones rips American fans, whining that U.S. track gods are idolized only during Olympic years, while their foreign counterparts enjoy year-after-year adoration. This may look seem like a tragedy to an outfit selling running shoes, but it isn't.

American fans have favorites, just like those overseas. We fill our stadiums for football and baseball, our arenas for basketball and fake wrestling. Few Americans give a rip about cricket or bull fighting or, it seems, track. So sue us.

The worst ad, though, has Mrs. Jones sounding off about pay equity in sports: "Why are our sisters making less when they're busting their butts to the max? Are they playing any less hard than the fellas? Is their blood any less red? [Their] sacrifice is the same. Yet women receive less. They deserve more."

So women are playing hard, bleeding red, sacrificing and making less. Big deal. Trying hard is great in tee-ball, but trying hard doesn't put pro fans in the seats. And rabid fan interest is what adds all those zeroes to the salaries of guys playing baseball and basketball.

There's no conspiracy to pay women less. While there are salary caps and other distortions, sports earnings remain market-driven, reflecting an athlete's ability to attract fans. In this, it is ultimately a player's performance that counts.

While women will likely gain some ground as new leagues mature, there is a reason why those playing on established circuits like tennis and golf earn less than men. In sports where strength counts, women just can't perform at the level of men. That's not a cut, that's the truth — and it's the reason for separate leagues. In sports where strength is less important — like jockeying and race-car driving — women already compete equally with men.

Nike is synonymous with winning. Company pitchmen Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods didn't come to tower over their sports just by trying hard, but by performing and winning at seemingly superhuman levels. (No doubt Jordan tried hard when he took up baseball, but he couldn't get out of the minors.)

The pay equity ad makes Nike an unlikely cheerleader for equal outcomes. Nike itself pays soccer's Mia Hamm a fraction of what it pays Tiger. And every year Nike rolls over the competition like its superstar endorsers, scoring 30 percent of the global sneaker market and leaving Adidas and Reebok with 15 and 11 percent, respectively.

But, is it really fair for Nike to keep making so much more money? Do the Adidas people not try hard? Are they not busting their butts at Reebok? And what about everybody at Fila, Converse, K-Swiss and Puma? Do they not bleed red, too?

Of course, no one outside the U.S. Justice Department would dare attack Nike for its success. The Swoosh team should extend a similar courtesy to male athletes.

Contact Luke Boggs at lukeboggs at hotmail.com.

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