Nothing but net: When Nike fought back against a left-wing Operation PUSH boycott and won

Posted: April 2, 2023 by John Ruberry in business, nba, News/opinion, nfl, opinion/news, politics, Sports
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By John Ruberry

This week Air, an Amazon Studios film, opens in movie theaters nationwide. It tells the story of Nike’s development of the Air Jordan line of sneakers in the mid-1980s. The shoes were the expensive footwear of Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, who still appears in Nike ads.

What you won’t see in Air is the failed boycott of Operation PUSH in 1990 of Nike. Chicago-based PUSH, now Rainbow/PUSH, was, depending on who you talk to, either a major civil rights power of the late 20th century, or a shakedown operation. I belong to the latter camp. 

PUSH was founded in the early 1970s by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, but he departed PUSH to be serve as a shadow senator for Washington DC–what does that entail?– and to lead a new group, the National Rainbow Coalition, which merged with PUSH in 1996. Leading PUSH during the Jackson-less interregnum was the Reverend Tyrone Crider. 

Jackson’s gameplan for PUSH followed this pattern: He’d smear a corporation as racist, call for a boycott, then demand that these corporations hire more Blacks and other minorities–as well as more minority contractors–and then declare victory. But often those hired were cronies and relatives of Jackson. Coca-Cola, some CBS television affiliates, and Anheuser-Busch were prior targets of PUSH.

Of the latter, Jackson said, “This bud’s a dud,” a play on the brewer’s slogan for Budweiser at the time. In 1998, two of Jackson’s sons, Yusuf and Jonathan, purchased a Chicago Anheuser-Busch distributor

Shortly after taking the helm of PUSH in 1990, Crider picked a new villain, Nike. Unlike past targets/victims whose founders were either retired or long dead, Nike’s founders, scrappy entrepreneurs Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman, were still with the corporation in 1990. Knight was the chairman of Nike at the time, he was only a quarter-century removed from when he was selling running shoes at track meets from the trunk of his Plymouth Valiant. 

When PUSH declared its boycott of Nike–sorry, I can’t resist–the sneaker giant pushed back. Nike quickly announced it would appoint a Black board member and a Black vice president, and hire some Black department heads, but a Nike spokesperson said that those moves were already planned prior to the PUSH attack.

Next came a nothing-but-net three-pointer by Nike from midcourt. In an open letter, Nike turned the tables on PUSH, requesting that it turn over “the membership of PUSH by geographical location, age, sex and race.” It gets better. Nike asked in that same letter, “Has PUSH been the subject of review or investigation by any federal or state agency? If so, state the name of the agency involved, the nature of the investigation and the findings or conclusions of the investigation.” Guess what? PUSH had been the target of a federal probe.

PUSH demanded proprietary financial information from Nike, at the same time Reebok, a top competitor of Nike, purchased a full-page ad in the Operation PUSH magazine. That same open letter, according to a Chicago Tribune article, also called on “PUSH to supply details in 21 categories relating to how the organization made its decision to single out the athletic-wear industry.”

None of the celebrity endorsers of the time for Nike, whose ranks included Spike Lee, Bo Jackson, and His Airness, Michael Jordan, participated in the boycott. Georgetown men’s basketball coach John Thompson, a consultant for Nike who later served as a board member, also remained loyal.

By early 1991, PUSH laid off its entire paid staff, although other civil rights groups bailed it out a week later.

And what about Nike sales? “The boycott has had little apparent effect on Nike,” the Washington Post reported at the time, “whose earnings soared 58 percent last September, October and November over the corresponding period in 1989.”

Nothing but net.

Of course, now Nike is completely woke, Knight is retired and Bowerman died in 1999. Colin Kaepernick, a Nike endorser beginning in 2011, was featured in a series of Nike ads after he was handed his last NFL snap. In his last season as a professional football player, Kaepernick took a knee when the National Anthem was played before games. Kaepernick regularly speaks out in favor of various far-left causes, such as abolishing prisons and police departments.

For a time, Nike was gutsy. And the lesson for corporations today is clear. You can fight back against leftist threats and win.

Just do it.

When you stand up to bullies, they usually back down.

John Ruberry, who wore his first pair of Nike Waffle Trainer running shoes in 1977, regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

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