Copyrighted material

Two Books Document Rise of Nike

by Doug Nufer

Sweatshop Index

The most damning versions of history often come from the authorized mouth
The authorized corporate history used to be a vanity publication that went unread. Management would pay a writer to trumpet its own glories, order tons of copies from a publisher, and shovel the propaganda to customers and employees (to whom these books were usually dedicated).

Nowadays, however, CEOs of successful corporations tout their exploits in flabby tomes that are manufactured as bestsellers. Publishers not only finance huge print runs and promotion budgets, but pay handsome advances to the CEOs, who sanctimoniously proclaim that all "proceeds" will go to charity. While muckrakers get shunted off into narrower channels of distribution and lapdog journalists serve the needs of PR departments in exchange for access to basic information, critics of this trend console themselves with the realization that the most fascinating -- even damning -- versions of history often come straight from the authorized mouth.

"Years of simple honesty" -- and suing the shit out of anyone in their way
Consider Nike. Swoosh by J.B. Strasser and Laurie Becklund (HBJ 1991) wears out its claim as Nike's unauthorized biography by being less critical of the sneaker giant than Donald Katz's more or less authorized 1994 Just Do It (Random House) manages to be. Take away the running feud between CEO Phil Knight and J.B.'s husband Rob, who left the company in 1986, and Swoosh is no more unauthorized than a pledge raid on the frat house.

Nevertheless, Strasser and Becklund tell "The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There" (the subtitle of Swoosh) with a novelistic depth and passion. The story is particularly well detailed in relating the early years of the company, up through the time Strasser's husband leaves. After reading of Rob Strasser's heroics told in breathless, war story tone ("To make Nike the number-one brand in the country, Strasser did not envision saturation bombing. He didn't want a shotgun, he wanted a rifle aimed at the cynics, the leaders who set the pace."), I wonder why Swoosh isn't required reading for all Nike employees. So he went to work for Adidas -- don't superstars change teams?

Phil Knight as well as Rob Strasser and all of the early Nike faithful compose a very favorable picture of a young company on the move. J.B. Strasser (a former Nike ad exec) and Laurie Becklund (her sister, an L.A. Times reporter) show the fledgling shoe salesmen pluckily building their trade, establishing dealer loyalty with "years of simple honesty, of unquestioned acceptance of returns," of facing down creditors, beating competitors, and suing the shit out of anyone in their way. Tender yet raunchy anecdotes rip the pants off the executives at play, in scenes that boys grown old might fondly remember. Even the hungover CEO groping through his own vomit to recover a contact lens might, years later, approve of the Swoosh spirited explanation of circumstances (pesky unions, stodgy facilities) that drove Nike from U.S. factories to Asian sweatshops.

Although most of the controversy surrounding Nike's manufacturing and marketing practices occurred after the publication of Swoosh, the authors squeeze much that did happen at the end of the eighties into 20 pages of their 682-page book, glossing over criticisms of the shoe company that Just Do It faces and explores.

Katz relates a 1990 P.U.S.H. boycott of Nike in a way that explains the detractors' position, while Strasser and Becklund seem forced to mention this or any event bearing on their topic that arises after Rob Strasser quits. One possible reason for the abruptness of this sort of appendix (contained within the main body of text) comes across in the Swoosh prologue. The authors capture the company at a low point, perhaps to keep it there, stuck in a Vegas cocktail lounge in 1986: "An aging harpist in a long red polyester gown sat in the middle of the restaurant playing 'My Way.'" Through no fault of the authors, life and Nike went on.

Michael Jordan's integrity as an athlete, as a man, is wrapped up in his identity as a Nike superstar
The book Just Do It reaches for a more grandiose effect with its opening: "Along the slender thoroughfare called West Illinois Street, a long line of television vans idled noisily with their microwave saucers thrust skyward as if to catch the October night." The occasion is Michael Jordan's 1993 retirement from basketball, a potential catastrophe for the sneaker company that made him their lead superstar in a marketing strategy that, in turn, made them the biggest sports broker in the cosmos. Although less than half as long as Swoosh, Just Do It has an expansive, somewhat bloated style to accommodate not just the egos of its principle figures, but the inflated importance of the media events it delightfully describes.

Given Nike's penchant for embracing renegade athletes and rule-breakers, Phil Knight's "begrudging" cooperation with Katz seems sophisticated, as do his snits whenever someone mentions Strasser. Given his personal and financial stake in Nike, Knight's extreme competitiveness also seems a perfect match for his chosen field. Sports metaphors overrun corporate histories -- any secret to the success of these books may well begin and end with the affinity Business shares with Sport -- so, far from trivial, Knight's ability to elevate a personnel dispute to the level of blood feud is a genuine and realistic response to the challenges posed by his or any business. Think how routine disagreements with co-workers can escalate, especially when tinged with a lover's sense of betrayal.

Standing on Principle Neither Nike book really tells why Knight thinks as he does, but Just Do It puts his and his superstars' problems into perspective. Katz relates a complicated diplomatic snarl from the '92 Olympics that occurs when Michael Jordan refuses to wear a Reebok sweatsuit. En route to a sure gold medal, the American basketball team serves notice from the luxury hotel suites it occupies in lieu of sharing space with common jocks, that it won't mount the victory platform wearing the logo of a Nike rival, regardless of Reebok's contract with the Olympics as awards ceremony outfitters.

The American pros are dominated by Nike loyalists, who owe more to their shoe company than to their respective NBA teams. While the Nike brass is willing to let Reebok have its Olympic moment and finds Jordan's stand somewhat embarrassing, Knight and his fellow execs appreciate Jordan's commitment to them. They can't simply call him off -- his integrity as an athlete, as a man, is too wrapped up in his identity as a Nike superstar.

Moreover, Jordan's stand versus the Olympics establishment is just the sort of grandstand play a Nike guy is supposed to execute. Midway through this intriguing episode with all of its strategic twists and principled stands, it's hard not to recall Mexico City in 1968, when, to protest the U.S. government's exploitation of Black men during the Vietnam War, athletes staging a demonstration at an Olympics awards ceremony set their sights on something even higher than the honor of their endorsement contracts.

As good as he is at milking the absurdity of this situation, Katz also excels when he handles a less ambiguous issue: Nike's responsibility to its factory workers. Applying the leftist bumpersticker line, "Think globally, act locally," he explains the economic realities that force any reasonable company to use the superior modern facilities available in Asia, where cheap skilled labor gratefully lines up for miles to do the vilest job, and he explains how making sneakers might well be the vilest job, but then, after giving Nike's excuses for being somehow unable to tell its contracted factories what a human being must have in order to live, Katz offers an opinion: "investors wouldn't object," if Nike pressed for higher wages.

From Asia to Newark, Niketown to the Beaverton campus, the naughty achievers push for their personal bests. When Charles Barkley begins fugueing at a shareholder's meeting on the ramifications of "just do it," blithely applying the slogan to Jeffrey Dahmer's appetite for boys, who wouldn't rather side with the powerful superstars of the world, forever to be upheld at the expense of the miniscule-wage slaves who kill themselves making the masters' shoes?

This article originally appeared in Washington Free Press

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Albion Monitor April 22, 1998 (

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