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.

The setbacks seem only to have stoked Keady's fire. After Nike brushed off his offer to work in one of its factories for six months, he and a compatriot, Leslie Kretzu, made their own way to Tangerang, and scraped by on 325,000 rupiah for the month of August, enduring the anxiety of choosing toiletries or food, a typical factory worker's cement box, and "rats and cockroaches like I've never seen." The move impressed even Keady's pals, a number of whom initially thought his activism was, in a word, "crazy."

Ad exec Mike Pierantozzi accompanied Keady to Indonesia to film his college buddy, though he was "kind of on the fence on the issue—I'm not an activist." But when three young women came to Keady's room to detail humiliating treatment and 15-hour days at their Adidas factory, Pierantozzi got a shock: "It turned out these women had made the $80 sneakers I was wearing. The girl was actually showing me the place where she'd stitched the uppers!" The moment jolted Pierantozzi out of "my typical American obtuseness about the origins of our products." Keady, notes Pierantozzi with a laugh, was "wearing sandals. You know, the whole Jesus thing."

Keady certainly has a sense of mission. Father Surlis, Keady's prof, avers, "A word comes up with Jim—the word is prophetic. His is an effort to practice genuine religion." Indeed, Keady laces his conversation with references to Gandhi, King, and moral theology, and is so pure he won't even wear a swoosh-stamped ID badge when visiting Nike headquarters. Or as Surlis puts it, "He can be a bit in-your-face at times."

Where his supporters see passion, Nike detects prejudice. In an online response to Keady's campaign, the company questions his "sincerity and credibility," saying that Keady went to Indonesia to "bolster his profile, further his existing lawsuit against Nike, and generate interest in a book he is writing." And the company says Keady "trivialized and demeaned the lives of Indonesians who work in factories. . . . Given his privileged, Western perspective, Mr. Keady does not understand . . . the value and importance of a job . . . in Indonesia."

At least the same cannot be said of Julianto, a union organizer who for the last three years worked as a hot-press operator for a Nike subcontractor in Serang. Speaking through an interpreter, the 23-year-old described how, after helping to lead a massive protest at his plant last December, he was hauled into a manager's office, and with an Indonesian soldier standing by, was told to back off—or risk a visit by hired thugs. That claim received a measure of support last month when Community Aid Abroad-Oxfam Australia issued a report documenting claims of intimidation and harassment of union workers in Nike's Indonesian factories. Julianto has since quit to organize full-time, and met Keady last month. He says he admires Keady's campaign, though his sports idol remains Michael Jordan.

Nike icon Jordan remains an outsized figure for anti-sweatshop activists too, along with brandmate superheroes Tiger Woods and Mia Hamm, but as a target for conversion—and a source of disappointment. At the Al- ternative Opening Ceremony demo in Sydney, Keady urged Olympic athletes to visit Indonesia. He had little luck, though activists did engage Olympic stars when Tiffeny Milbrett and Brandi Chastain of the U.S. soccer team wandered into an anti-globalization protest in Melbourne. Alas, Milbrett used the occasion to defend Nike. The next week Sports Illustrated helpfully suggested that "the story of Milbrett . . . would make for a dynamite shoe commercial."

The great Jordan famously promised to investigate Nike's factories when sweatshop conditions made headlines in 1996. He has not been heard from on the issue since, and Temple basketball coach John Chaney may have spoken for many in the sports world when he was asked about Jordan's silence: "Why should he stick his neck out and risk his endorsement deals? You got a fucking problem with Michael making money? Michael should pick up every fucking dollar possible."

Given that context, Keady's refusenik stance can seem miraculous. Among American athletes, only Milbrett's teammate Julie Foudy has taken anything like a public stand against multinational exploitation (in 1997, the Reebok star insisted on inspecting overseas soccer ball plants herself before OK'ing an endorsement deal). "It's a credit to Jim as a person to risk being scorned in the soccer community," says Keady's former Imperials teammate Tim Mulqueen, now a coach with Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards. "Especially in our profession, which is governed by these large sports companies."

Keady has had an impact. Following his campaign at St. John's, the university formed a task force on global sweatshops and helped establish two industry watchdogs, the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities and the Fair Labor Association. Activists, however, say those groups are tainted by industry sponsorship (Nike has pledged $7.7 million to the Global Alliance over five years). Prompted by students, more than 50 universities have joined the independent Workers Rights Consortium instead. But this spring, Nike bolted from negotiations over multimillion-dollar deals with Brown and Michigan when those schools joined the WRC. And Phil Knight personally pulled a $30 million donation to his alma mater and WRC-signee, Oregon, fulminating that "the university inserted itself into the new global economy, where I make my living."

Of course, Keady, now without a teaching or coaching job, will have to face the question of making his living when he comes home this week. That predicament, says Doug Beaumont, who sometimes roomed with Keady on St. John's road trips, is sad—but also admirable: "To lose your job and have people blackball you, but to stand up for your beliefs, is incredible." For his part, Keady seems undaunted by unemployment. Last week in Indonesia he was trying to cobble together an activist speaking tour upon his return. In the end, Keady allows that he sorely misses playing and coaching, but he's come around to seeing it this way: "The world is a whole lot bigger than soccer."


Responding to Keady

St. John's University has long maintained that it did not force Jim Keady to leave his job at the school for refusing to wear Nike gear, and it cites approvingly a federal judge's finding two weeks ago—in dismissing a lawsuit Keady filed last year—that Keady resigned his job "on his own accord, as 'a troubling matter of conscience.' " Keady says he'll appeal the dismissal. St. John's also says it is committed to combating sweatshops. The Reverend James J. Maher, chair of the university's Code of Conduct Task Force, says that St. John's is now contributing more money than any other college to both the Global Alliance for Workers and Communities and the Fair Labor Association, groups that are supposed to monitor labor conditions in third-world factories. And he says that he has been "truly impressed by steps that Nike has taken" to improve conditions for its workers.

Indeed, Nike says that Jim Keady and other activists "have certainly chosen the right issue but are targeting the wrong company." According to Vada Manager, Nike's director of global-issues management, "We have made considerable improvements in the way we do business in the world." In Vietnam, for example, the company allowed an independent health and safety monitor into the factory where carcinogens had been found at 177 percent of legal levels, and he reported "important improvements." In Indonesia, Nike says it has boosted entry-level wages above the country's minimum, and has raised the age minimums for apparel workers to 16 years and for footwear workers to 18 years. The company helped found both the Global Alliance and the Fair Labor Association. As for Keady's Indonesia trip, Nike is less than impressed. In an online response, the company argues that "Keady does not understand Nike's global manufacturing processes, nor has he made an effort to do so. His perspective amounts to self-fulfilling conclusions."

St. Francis Preparatory School would not comment on Keady, though it cited failures to carry out teaching duties and violations of school policy in dismissing him.
—A.H.

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