Standing Up to the Swoosh

One Man's Crusade Against Nike

Jim Keady admits that the moment came when even he had to wonder. It was a bit more than a month ago, and he was lying on a reedy mat on the bumpy, shelf-papered floor of a tiny, dank cement flat in slummy Tangerang, an industrial suburb of Jakarta. His head was throbbing from a headache, and he felt so faint from hunger that the 6-4 former soccer pro was having trouble "lifting a water bottle to my mouth without it shaking violently." The absurdity of it is that Keady's sufferings were self-imposed: the result of his having volunteered to live for a month on the typical wages—about $1.20 a day—of an Indonesian factory worker sewing shoes for Nike.

Keady shook off the doubts, making it through the day and, ultimately, the month—though he lost 25 pounds. The experience confirmed, he says, that "Nike is paying a starvation wage in Indonesia. I know—I starved on it." Still, he says with utter conviction, "It was worth it."

Indeed, Keady's Tangerang travail was just the latest stage for the ex-St. John's goalkeeper coach in what has become a personal crusade to expose the exploitation in Nike's third-world subcontracting factories—which number more than 700 and employ more than half a million people, including 110,000 in Indonesia. It's a cause that has drawn increasing numbers of Americans in the last five years, as revelations about dreadful sweatshop conditions in overseas factories have led to an international campaign and protests on scores of college campuses nationwide. In 1998, even Nike chief executive Phil Knight conceded that "the Nike product has become synonymous with slave wages, forced overtime, and arbitrary abuse." But even as the anti-sweatshop movement has blossomed, Keady's career has withered. Beyond the month of precipitous weight loss, dull headaches, and fast-food longings, Keady's activism has cost him two jobs and, apparently, a promising future in his lifelong love, soccer.

"Nike is paying a starvation wage in Indonesia," says Jim Keady. "I know—I starved on it."
photo: Dominique Vitali
"Nike is paying a starvation wage in Indonesia," says Jim Keady. "I know—I starved on it."

For Keady, the trouble began with a research paper. Three years ago he was studying for a master's degree in theology at St. John's, and working with the goalkeepers there. It was a plum post for the then 26-year-old Keady, who, after a lifetime of playing soccer, had risen to backup goalie for the North Jersey Imperials, a minor-league professional squad. A job with the defending national champion Red Storm, even as a part-time graduate assistant in the soccer department, held out the possibility of a coaching career.

Then, in a class on Catholic social teaching, Keady's professor suggested that the young jock explore the connection between moral theology and sports, and Keady settled on the issue of Nike's labor practices. "I didn't know that this would lead to any sort of activism," he says. "I was just looking for a good paper topic." But what Keady learned about Nike's now notorious history of child labor (in 1996, eight-year-olds were found making Nike soccer balls in Pakistan), wretched working conditions (in 1997, overworked Vietnamese women were found to have been exposed to toxic chemicals at 177 times legal levels), and miserable pay (for years, Nike contractors even fought for exemptions from Indonesia's paltry mini-mum wages) appalled him. He poured himself into his research (and eventually earned an A in the class).

It so happened that St. John's was then negotiating with Nike over a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal, and for Keady, what had been an intellectual issue suddenly became all too practical. "As a coach, I would've had to wear the equipment—shoes, socks, T-shirts, sweats, everything." Keady decided he couldn't. He started contacting university officials, writing for the campus press, and talking up the issue with the soccer team.

When Keady made his stance public, he kicked off what his theology professor, the Reverend Paul Surlis, calls "the most vigorously argued debate I have seen in all the 25 years I have been at St. John's." And in certain quarters, namely the administration and athletic department, that controversy was not happily received. Weeks of pressure ensued, Keady says, culminating in an ultimatum. "I was told I would have to wear Nike clothes and drop the issue or resign."

The order stunned him. "I couldn't believe I was being forced to make that decision. But I felt like I didn't want to be a billboard for a company that was reaping profits on the backs of the poor. I knew what had to be done." In June of 1998, he quit.

That seemingly simple act has launched Keady on "an incredible journey." He has been lionized in print and on campuses, and this month played a prominent role in Olympics protests in Sydney. But his newfound passion for social justice seems to have exiled him from the two worlds he knew best: Catholic education and soccer. This spring he wore out his welcome at St. Francis Preparatory School in Queens—where he had taught religion since leaving St. John's—after un- ceasingly campaigning, in class and out, against a slew of social ills (he took his students to a march in midtown Manhattan). He says he has been blackballed in the soccer world, and hasn't been able to get a tryout with his old team. And two weeks ago a federal judge threw out an $11 million lawsuit Keady filed last year against Nike and St. John's.

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