Ever since the Adidas sponsorship was announced this summer, rumors of protest have circulated. Adidas, like most sportswear companies, is well known for having questionable labor practices. This week, Oberlin College and Cornell University decided not to renew their four-year contracts with Adidas — the first time Adidas has ever lost a college contract.
The sponsorship deal provides the 22 varsity sports teams with uniforms and other athletic gear. The Athletics department signed the contract in an effort to unify the athletics teams that had purchased gear from a variety of sportswear companies in the past.
The controversy began before the deal was signed, when the Oberlin College Purchasing Committee became aware of Adidas’ unfair labor practices. Oberlin is affiliated with the Workers’ Rights Consortium, a group that performs independent research to monitor labor practices. The Purchasing Committee reviews the information the WRC produces, and “match[es] what suppliers are doing to the [Oberlin College Code of Conduct] and then grade[s] them,” according to committee member and Politics professor Marc Blecher.
In January, the WRC wrote a report that indicated Adidas might not be compliant with Oberlin’s Code of Conduct. According to the report, Indonesian workers contracted to produce apparel for Adidas, Nike and the Dallas Cowboys were owed pay for three months’ worth of work. Nike and the Dallas Cowboys contributed money to a fund for the workers, while Adidas refused to pay the $1.8 million it owed.
When pressured by the Purchasing Committee, Adidas responded that it “provided $250,000 to a local organization to deliver food aid to 2,800 former workers during the important Islamic holiday of Idul Fitri … In addition to the job placement program and the $250,000 food aid program we have already established, we are committing another $275,000 in humanitarian aid in recognition of the continuing hardship faced by former workers and their families,” in a letter to the College at the end of September.
In a letter to Adidas this week, the Purchasing Committee responded, “We find Adidas’s job placement efforts and its $250,000 in food aid insufficient for the reasons articulated by the Workers Rights Consortium. Likewise, its recent offer of $275,000 in ‘humanitarian aid’ is both insufficient quantitatively while also still eliding the important principle that the workers are due their full pay and not charity.”
The decision not to renew the sponsorship after the four-year contract ends, rather than completely annulling it, is an important distinction to make. Because the Athletics Department has already purchased the majority of the equipment and apparel it will use for the next four years, any complete cut of the contract would have no real effect. Furthermore, remaining under this contract allows Oberlin to monitor Adidas’s practices over the next four years.
“Our job is not to punish Adidas, our job is to pressure Adidas,” explained Blecher. “If we cancel the contract, we lose our ability to pressure them. [This] gives us more leverage over them. It’s not a moral thing, it’s a political thing.”