Meredith Alexander, News Service (650) 725-0224; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Corporate sponsorship of athletics raises ethical issues in campus debate
Should Stanford use corporate sponsors to equip student-athletes? What ethical questions arise from the relationship between the university and sponsoring corporations?
Those issues came up for debate at a panel discussion hosted by the Program in Ethics in Society Thursday night. Debra Satz, director of the program and associate professor of philosophy, moderated the debate.
The meeting brought together a key opponent of the athletic department's relationship with sportswear-maker Nike, drama and classics Associate Professor Rush Rehm, alongside a defender of the proposed Nike contract, athletics director Ted Leland. Provost John Etchemendy and political science Professor David Abernethy joined in the debate.
Opponents of the contract with Nike said that it gives free advertising to a company they do not support that is placed literally on the backs of uniform-wearing student-athletes. Those who expressed support for a new contract, on the other hand, asserted that its benefits much-needed equipment for athletes that relieves pressure on university budgets outweigh the costs.
Around 80 students and faculty have signed a letter expressing their disapproval of a new contract between Nike and the university. Such a contract is under negotiation.
Launching the discussion was Abernethy, who spoke out against the Nike "swoosh" logo that appears on the apparel that the company has donated to Stanford under the current contract. "It's demeaning to Stanford that students wear any insignia other than Stanford's," he said.
Abernethy said he saw Nike's involvement with Stanford as part of "the commercialization of college sports, whose great glory in comparison with professional sports is its freedom from commercialization." He asserted that the contract is between the university and the corporation, and that therefore students shouldn't have to participate by wearing the Nike logo. "Students should not be made into parties carrying out the contract," he said.
Etchemendy made the broad argument that Stanford accepts donations in many forms, all of which contribute to the functioning of the university.
"The university relies on sponsorship in just about each and every piece of its activities. It's actually quite common and very important for funding a private university like Stanford," he said. He pointed out that many campus buildings and rooms, and even faculty chairs, bear the names of corporations. The Nike contract, he suggested, is no different.
Etchemendy said that if no Nike contract existed, many smaller teams ones that do not have as many resources would have to buy their own uniforms. The contract is important for these teams, Etchemendy argued. Their equipment "is not going to be funded by the university. I'm not going to raise tuition to buy uniforms," he said.
"It's a business decision," said Leland, emphasizing the cost-benefit analysis of the contract.
He said the contract would allow small teams with little funding to get uniforms for free. And he said most students support the Nike brand.
"Our athletes really like Nike. Nike's been a friend to them," Leland said, pointing out that many participated in Nike tournaments before coming to Stanford. Leland said he had solicited the opinions of student-athletes on the deal, without much reaction.
Rehm and Abernethy contended that it would be hard for students to find the courage to "opt out" of using the Nike equipment, as the university has proposed that they could do.
"It's extremely difficult to take an individualistic stand when you're on a team," Rehm said.
Etchemendy and Leland acknowledged that students could feel pressure to wear the Nike apparel provided for them under the contract rather than opt out. They also agreed that Nike's motivation is to gain free advertising from the apparel. Yet they said that is just part of the tradeoff inherent in the contract.
"Students get nicer equipment, with no effect on the university budget as a whole," Etchemendy said.
Leland also remarked that one can use a company's equipment without feeling like a human billboard: "I think most of our athletes don't feel they're a running ad for Nike, just as I am not advertising for Ford when I drive my Taurus down the street."
By Meredith Alexander