Nike faces antidrug backlash to T-shirts

Updated: June 24, 2011, 12:13 PM ET
Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Nike Inc. is being blasted for replacing its signature "Just Do It" slogan on some T-shirts with the phrases "Dope," "Get High" and "Ride Pipe."

The shoe and athletic apparel company said the terms are part of the lingo used by the skaters, snowboarders and participants in other extreme sports it's trying to target with the shirts. But critics say the slogans endorse drug use.

Your window display of T-shirts with drug and profanity wordplay are out of keeping with the character of Boston's Back Bay, our entire city and our aspirations for our young people ... not to mention common sense.

-- Mayor Thomas M. Menino's letter to a Boston Niketown store

Boston's mayor has asked Nike to remove a display of the shirts. And an Oregon antidrug group condemned them in a letter sent to 1,500 people -- including some at The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy -- urging them to let Nike know they disapprove of the slogans.

"It's gone past edgy," said Tom Parker, spokesman for the Oregon Partnership. "Sure it is the language of skateboarders and surfers, but it's also the language of addicts."

Boston's mayor, Thomas M. Menino, this week sent a letter to the general manager of a Niketown store in a popular shopping district in Boston after he saw the shirts in the store window. He asked that they be taken down, saying the company failed to take drug abuse seriously.

"Your window display of T-shirts with drug and profanity wordplay are out of keeping with the character of Boston's Back Bay, our entire city and our aspirations for our young people ... not to mention common sense," Menino said in the letter.

The Nike shirts became available on June 1 in conjunction with the launch of an action sports campaign. The "Dope" shirt shows the image of a pill bottle upended with surfboards and skateboards pouring out. Not all the shirts have controversial terms. Other shirts include the phrases "F Gravity" and "Get Wet."

Nike, based in Beaverton, Ore., recently has increased its marketing surrounding extreme sports and said the new shirts promote sports -- not illegal drug use.

"Sport is an antidote to drugs," Nike spokeswoman Erin Dobson said in a statement. "There is no better adrenaline rush than catching a wave or landing a trick. The language is the same that skaters, BMX'ers and surfers use every day around the world."

Skateboarders say references to pot smoking are common in extreme sports. "It's part of the culture," said Mike Hirsch, 45, a skateboarder since the 1970s and owner of the SoCal Skate Ship in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Hirsh doesn't sell Nike products at his store, but said he doesn't think the shirts should be pulled because of the terms. "I'm not a big fan of it, but it's part of the street culture and always has been," he said.

New Yorker Paul Roura, 25, a skateboarder for 15 years, called the shirts "corny." "It's not the best image to be putting out there for skateboarders," he said.

Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, agrees. "Apparently, Nike did not consult any of their former sponsored athletes like Marion Jones, to see firsthand the destruction that comes from choosing to use dangerous drugs to cheat in sport," said Tygart, referring to the track star who had her Olympic medals stripped after she admitted to using steroids.

"Athletes have had their lives ruined by the use of performance enhancing drugs, and it is totally irresponsible that Nike is now actively promoting it for profit," he said.

Nike has long pushed the envelope with its products and marketing efforts. The company had an "Air Stab" line of shoes that was pulled in London in 2008 after a spate of knife deaths around that time. The company also had a series of ads for its Hyperdunk shoes that included images and slogans that some critics considered anti-gay. Nike supported the campaign at first but later withdrew the ads.

David Carter, a professor of sports business at executive director of University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute, said the shirts in the current campaign cross the line.

"I understand their edginess and where they've been all these years trying to get people's attention in dramatic ways," said David Carter a professor of sports business and executive director of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute. But, "it is in poor taste given what the company really stands for when it comes to pure sports."

However, Carter and other marketing experts said Nike might be laughing all the way to the bank. The controversy could generate more attention and spur sales of the shirts, they say.

"I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing," said Paul Swanguard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "It's not an overt attempt to offend but it is an overt attempt to connect, which is what Nike has always done well."


Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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