I work at a gym and recently a young man came in wearing this t-shirt:

nike unfair shirt


Thinking that perhaps I had encountered another member of the anti-sweatshop labor community (though being also confused by the shirt), I asked him, “Hey brother, what’s the deal with that shirt?” He said, “What do you mean?” I took a deep breath and thought to myself, “Mark, it’s your first week working here. Do you really want to bust out labor politics to a customer at your workplace?” So what I said was, “I thought it may have something to do with Nike using sweatshop labor.” I guess my answer to myself was “sure.”

He said, “Um, well as far as I know, it’s like some people are so good at their sport that they have an unfair advantage, that’s what it’s talking about.” I said, “oh, that’s very interesting, I can see that being a good marketing angle.” A little restraint never killed anyone. “Fantastic,” I continued. “My name’s Mark, by the way.” “Kevin,” he replied. “Good to meet you, Kevin. You have a great workout, aight?”

He nodded and scurried off, his brow furrowed but a little smile on his face, as if to say, “as long as I can walk away right now, we’re all good here.”

It seemed odd to have the word “unfair” written on a shirt made by a company so increasingly reputed to abuse its workers. So I did a little research. One of the first and only hits on Google to come up when I searched for “nike unfair shirt” was a tweet by Playfair2012, evidently a UK-based workers’ rights group concerned with the London Games, that read,

#Nike “UNFAIR” branded t-shirts tell the truth about how garment workers are treated. It’s time for Nike to play fair.

It featured the same photo I have provided above. The weirdest thing about it is that it serves as an ad for Nike almost as much as a criticism; was PlayFair actually saying Nike’s intention with the shirt was to acknowledge “the truth”? Probably not, of course. But the rhetoric of the tweet suggests the following: that Nike knows it behaves unfairly towards it workers, and now it’s time for them to act on that awareness.

Rather than the unfairness of its work conditions, what is Nike trying to imply by its use of “Unfair”? As Kevin mentioned above, the idea is that some people are better at things—in this case, sports—than others. Nike wants its potential customers to ask themselves this question: “*Are* some people better than others? Or is it just that they *believe* they are better? Is betterness determined by believing in yourself?” The answer, being yes, then is intended to lead that person to the “how” of the equation. “So *how* do I believe in myself more?”

It’s a good question: how *do* we demonstrate belief in ourselves? By being confident! By showing everyone else that we don’t care what they think of us, by working hard and “faking it til we make it,” and then once we have it, flaunting it.

And what demonstrates confidence? “The apparel doth make the man”! Of course, the jump that Nike wants you to make is that owning a Nike shirt might in some way symbolize your belief in yourself. And then, BECAUSE I believe in myself—of which ownership of this shirt is an expression—I can BECOME one of the “better” people who make life/sports unfair for everyone else! Soon, the word “unfair” will refer to how wearing Nike clothing—and the insane uptick in personal confidence and initiative it creates—gives the wearer an Unfair Advantage in the same way that being bigger, stronger, faster, or leaner can give you an advantage in sports (even though strength is cultivated over years of work and a shirt is purchased in a single afternoon).

Naturally, none of the thought processes I describe above are meant to taken literally as cognizant thoughts. For most of us, purchasing comes down to two things:

A) Does it function the way I want it to?

B) Do I like it (in terms of style/appearance)?

As for A), Nike is a well-known brand of fitness apparel with a huge list of professional sports endorsees and one of the most recognized logos in history. Obviously, the functionality of their products is a given based on their reputation; otherwise, they would not be so successful. Right? (I am, of course, speaking in the reasonable voice of the average thinker). And B)? Well, Nike simply wants you to think, “Yes, I like it,” and to buy the shirt. But what is it you like? What is the “style” they are selling you? The style is the idea that, by getting you to admit that life is unfair, and that unfairness is the result of not believing in yourself, Nike is nice enough as a company to provide you with the means of demonstrating belief in yourself  to such an extent that you have an unfair advantage, and now you yourself must be labeled “Unfair.”

In a 2001 article for CorpWatch, Alicia Rebensdorf describes how companies like Nike and others attempt, with some success, to repurpose the rhetoric of social justice movements aimed at them, to redirect the attention of the consumer away from the claims of a marginal and mercurial anti-corporate minority and towards the entrenched corporate authority figure. As FairPlay2012 above seems to suggest, companies such as Nike can win back their consumers’ credibility by appearing to “own” their shortcomings.

But the real purpose, bigger than asserting “ownership” over claims of foul play (and in part, conceding their validity), is valuable enough to justify any hypothetical cost. Such companies hope to undermine and co-opt the entire idea of social justice, to tie it to the oh-so-marketable state of “coolness,” and to then market themselves as “coolness you can buy,” which engenders buying the product and actively *consuming* it, and deriving a positive feeling and effect from doing so. The idea that it is somehow cooler to eschew the corporate exploiters, to *deprive* yourself of material pleasures, and to say and do negative things about corporations and society, are suddenly cast in a light of ridicule.

In the case of “Unfair,” not only is it “coolness you can buy,” but ability, talent, and hard work, to make yourself “unfair” to play against. The irony is that America possesses so much financial power throughout the world in part because of the neoimperialistic practices—such as worker exploitation—that Nike uses to keep costs down. In having corporations who do business like Nike, America *does*, in fact, make it unfair for much of the rest of the world, who, through poor work conditions and bad pay, are denied the freedom to ever believe in themselves. If they did, it would only be a matter of time before these workers forcibly removed the elite members of their often impoverished societies from power, who allow them, time and time again, to be exploited for the benefit of the richest country on earth, only to be told that “life is unfair, get used to it.”

Although he didn't actually say this. But it's interesting that we would falsely attribute something so defensive of the status quo to the richest man on earth.

Although he didn’t actually say this. But it’s interesting that we would falsely attribute something so defensive of the status quo to the richest man on earth.