Only in the cardboard discourse of sports page morality would Ben Roethlisberger and Chris Henry be equated for committing the ethical sin of "irresponsibility." Meanwhile, a real case of irresponsibility went unremarked when the University of Cincinnati traded one vice for another.
Companies making basketball shoes, athletic wear and campus wear are notorious for outsourcing in east Asia and South America, where sweatshop workers assemble the stuff for pennies per hour and withstand frequent harassment during shifts that eat entire waking weeks. The abuses are so prevalent that one almost has to make a deal with the devil to play basketball.
The good news last week was that UC ended its association with Nike, which outfitted the men's basketball team under the auspices of departed coach Bob Huggins. Given the chance to strike a blow for economic justice, which admittedly would have required uncommon initiative and creativity, UC took an easy path.
It turns out the new basketball coach, Mick Cronin, is an adidas man, so the university made a deal with adidas to supply its athletic teams. While adidas hasn't quite matched Nike's ill repute, it was still cited last fall for "routine labor violations" in factories hired to make its products, according to Co-op America, a watch group advocating sweat-free and cruelty-free production.
A Fair Labor Association audit from last November said the most common violations in factories making products for adidas were fire, health and safety-related issues. It noted workers were denied their rights to organize and worked excessive overtime.
United Students Against Sweatshops said managers at the Hermosa garment factory in El Salvador closed the factory in May 2005 after learning that workers attempted to organize. Not only were the workers blacklisted when they applied for jobs at another factory producing collegiate wear, but they also were denied their due back pay, social security and pensions. The Hermosa factory made products for Nike, adidas and Russell.
The list could continue and would name all the other major collegiate manufacturers: Fila, Asics, Puma, Reebok and New Balance. Of these companies, Co-op America says New Balance is "more responsible than the rest."
New Balance makes more than one-fourth of its products in the United States, according to Co-op America, yet it recently has contracted in China, where labor monitoring is practically impossible.
The athletic apparel game is inherently nasty, and responsible options are hard to find. One would think universities with their high-mindedness could develop a better way, as there are companies making products responsibly.
Sadly, none of these companies can afford to pay basketball coaches their six-figure shoe contracts. None of these companies can front millions of dollars in advertising campaigns. And, especially where basketball shoes are concerned, selection is limited.
The fruits of factory exploitation are to be observed all over the athletic world, especially in the World Cup. The big companies using sweatshop labor win in the marketplace because they can make better deals with the teams that advertise their products by wearing them.
By many accounts, slow progress is being made as consumers pressure the shoe companies to address workplace issues. But it remains that an enormous act of will on the demand end is required to push more reforms. One would be encouraged if the University of Cincinnati were at the forefront. Maybe next time.
As to the football players, Henry and Roethlisberger, they're apples and oranges. Henry, the Bengals' young wide receiver, has been arrested four times in the last six months on charges involving drugs, drunken driving, concealed weapons and under-aged girls. Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers' 24-year-old quarterback, sustained substantial injuries in a traffic accident, riding a motorcycle without a helmet.
While Henry has done little jail time for his alleged exploits, Roethlisberger did four days of hospital time, including seven hours of extensive surgery to fix multiple facial fractures. As he lay in his hospital bed, sports talkers and writers from the Alleghenies to the Rockies and beyond tackled the kid quarterback as if he broke an unspoken oath of fealty to his teammates and football fans everywhere.
During the offseason, this adrenaline junkie is supposed to curl up every afternoon with Proust, because it's his responsibility to avoid violent contact so he might be available to withstand violent contact when we're watching. No one is mad at Roethlisberger for getting injured — but many are mad at him for getting injured on his own time, instead of ours. They're upset with him for a mishap incidental to law-abiding life.
Roethlisberger is a young fellow who caught a bad break. Henry is an entirely different animal. One wishes it could be said of Henry that he's a kid who made a bad move somewhere, so the cops caught him with weed or driving drunk.
The Bengals won't comment on the charges against Henry, which doesn't mean we won't. The mere fact that this fellow has been in the wrong places at the wrong times often enough to endure four arrests during his first year in the NFL means he's not merely troubled. He is trouble.
In December, the Covington cops caught him with marijuana and he pled guilty. In January, police in Orlando charged him with three gun-related offenses; he awaits an August court date. In June, when police caught Henry speeding on I-275, he allegedly failed the field sobriety test, then blew a 0.092 on the Breathalyzer.
Now a criminal complaint said Henry provided alcohol to 18-year-old Monica Beamon and two other girls, aged 15 and 16, adding that he purchased alcohol for them when he knew they were under-aged. Beamon later told police that Henry raped her in a Covington motel. After police decided the sex was consensual, they charged her with filing a false police report.
Ten days later, an undercover cop reportedly arrested Beamon and charged her with prostitution.
We must grant that Beamon doesn't come off as the most reliable accuser. But what is Henry if he's hanging around with young girls like this?