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NFL Blocks Local Shirt Sales to Protect Reebok Sweatshops

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Here in New Orleans, the air is electric. The Saints are going to the Super Bowl for the first time in history! It's been long road through years of mediocrity, a promising 2006 run that many saw as emblematic of the region's Katrina recovery, then three more years of fine-tuning. Ultimately, reaching the Big Game came down to a single field goal in overtime. From the moment kicker Garret Hartley took the field until the ball was though the posts, the entire city held its breath. Then it went crazy celebrating. Many described it as "Mardi Gras come early," and local news reports that hotel reservations are near capacity for Sunday, mainly displaced natives who want to party back at home.

New Orleans may be a Catholic city, but for many, football is their first religion. That's why the recent flap over the National Football League's crackdown on local retailers selling shirts bearing the phrase "Who Dat?" raised so many hackles. The chant, "Whodat? Whodat? Whodat say dey gonna beat dem Saints?" originated from fan culture; so when the NFL sent cease-and-desist letters to local clothing boutiques based on a 1988 state trademark, it triggered a turf war over who actually controls support for the local team. In a place where rooting for the Black & Gold is so tightly bound up with cultural identity, the idea that a cheer could regulated was perceived as a direct affront from outsiders who just didn't get it (even if the law was on their side). Popular sentiment was that the NFL may organize football, but we live it.

But football is big business, and what happens on the field is just a small part of the story. Sporting events generate billions of dollars for hospitality, tourism, and retail industries completely outside of ticket and broadcast revenues. The NFL expends huge resources to develop and monetize these markets. For apparel merchandising, we're talking about something like $250 million: that's how much Reebok pays for an exclusive license to sell team-branded fan gear. Most of the clothes worn during that French Quarter celebration were manufactured under the terms of that contract.

So while the NFL goes to all these lengths to control who makes team apparel and how much they pay for that right, what effort do they expend to monitor where and how those goods are produced? Trademark law gives licensing entities the right- and duty- to retain some measure of control over how their marks will be used. Apparently the NFL doesn't feel that requirement extends to ensuring their jerseys and hats are manufactured in fair working conditions- and legally they don't have to. It's easy and cheap to violate all the principles leading to American wage and safety standards by manufacturing products elsewhere. But if football can be something deeper than a TV show, if it's providing a common vocabulary for American communities and symbolizes core values we all share, shouldn't the emblems that represent it be scrutinized under the light of those values?

A new report from sweatshop watchdog The National Labor Committee highlights this disparity. Investigators found NFL-licensed, Reebok-branded goods for thirteen pro football teams all being produced in a San Salvador factory where employees are paid only 10 1/2 cents for each $80 jersey they sew. Workers are required to put in 12 to 15 hours of unpaid overtime every week while earning overall wages 77% lower than a basic subsistence salary for the region.

The jerseys are now available for sale in the US, and are no longer being produced at this factory- which still makes different clothes for Reebok, Adidas and others. Don't be lured into thinking that with a shift in production the football league is now absolved, though- typically garment contracts are negotiated through "sourcing agents," who cut deals with companies like Reebok and then farm the work out to the lowest bidder. Manufacturers cut every possible corner- including wages, benefits, and safety measures- to get the bid. Meanwhile, US retailers like Reebok have little incentive to remain invested in individual plants.

To pay a living wage in the San Salvador factory would require increasing the unit price to 20 1/2 cents- less than 3/5 of one percent of a jersey's retail cost. If football as a cultural phenomenon is about something more than profit, shouldn't we ask why the NFL doesn't demand that basic measure of Reebok? Or why Reebok can't adjust their bottom line by that tiny fractional percentage point? At the very least, why aren't they willing to leverage the exclusivity of the NFL contract to present consumers with an option to pay the extra 11 cents for the knowledge they're expressing all-American fandom in a way that reflects American ideals?

Many shirts targeted by the NFL in their "Whodat" cease-and-desist letters are manufactured in California and printed locally. The league jumped to pay lawyers for the C&D letters, respond to the blowback, interact with the press and liaise with state attorneys- all to stop the sale of clothing made in conditions astronomically better than their own official goods. Surely a portion of that expense could have been better spent ensuring that our fan gear reflects not only support for individual teams, but for everything those teams represent- regional pride, work rewarded, dedication, commitment, and loyalty.

On Sunday I'll be barbecuing, watching the game with friends, and wearing my Saints cap. I'm going to cheer my heart out for our guys on the field and, by extension, for this city that I love. But I'm also going to give a lot of thought to the people who made that hat, and will do everything I can to let the NFL & Reebok know that hurting people to make a buck violates the principles that are supposed to make sports great.

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