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Football Supplier to FCS Schools Facing Blitz from Campus Activists
Russell Athletic, a major supplier of sports apparel to collegiate and professional sports teams, is facing an all-out blitz from campus activists.
Twenty-five U.S. colleges have cut ties to Atlanta-based Russell over alleged abuse of workers’ rights at its plant in Honduras. Russell supplies game uniforms and accessories to schools across the country, including four historically black college leagues: the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Southwestern Athletic Conference and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
Russell is a division of Bowling Green, Ky.-based Fruit of the Loom, which is owned by billionaire investor Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway.
United Students Against Sweatshops, a campus labor rights watchdog group, is urging colleges to drop relationships with Russell because the company allegedly violated Hondurans’ right to form a union. USAS chapters have been urged to push college administrators to enforce code of conduct clauses in their contracts with the company. They also want Russell gear removed from retail outlets, such as campus bookstores.
“This is such an egregious case,” said Rod Palmquist, international campaigns coordinator for USAS, which claims 250 college and high school chapters. “Russell is directly responsible. There’s no doubt about what’s going on there.”
According to Russell’s corporate website, the company is a licensed provider to four NFL teams, including the Carolina Panthers’ youth football and cheer squad of the week program as well as the National Collegiate Athletic Association; Minor League Baseball, Women’s National Basketball Association and the Arena Football League, which suspended operations for 2009 due to a labor impasse.
Russell’s involvement with HBCU leagues makes it the exclusive outfitter for every sponsored intercollegiate sport. Nine historically black N.C. colleges use Russell gear, including CIAA members Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte and Livingstone College in Salisbury. Russell also supplies majority-white Chowan University, which joined the CIAA in 2008 as well as MEAC schools N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro and Winston-Salem State University.
Russell officials didn’t respond to a request for an interview, but CIAA Commissioner Leon Kerry maintains the league backs its partner.
“The CIAA will maintain its relationship with Russell Athletic,” he wrote in an email to The Post. “Our partnership will continue Russell’s positive movement forward in upholding social responsibility and workplace compliance for all laborers.”
The Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights investigative group that claims 185 colleges and universities as affiliates, found that Russell closed its Honduras plant in response to workers’ decision to unionize. Russell denies the allegations, saying the plant’s closure was due to economic concerns.
“I really hope they’ll re-open the factory,” Palmquist said. “That’s the ultimate goal.”
Black college students haven’t been active participants in the drive, Palmquist said. “For students of color, the priorities aren’t necessarily the anti-sweatshop campaign,” he said. “We’re sensitive to that when we’re working on local issues.”
Russell also provides gear for Atlantic Coast Conference members Clemson University and Georgia Tech as well as Mississippi State University of the Southeastern Conference.
Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill are the only N.C. schools to cut ties to Russell. National athletic powers like the University of Miami, Georgetown University, Pennsylvania State University, University of Michigan and the entire University of Minnesota system have joined the boycott. Organizers expect another round of cancellations from Villanova University, Virginia Tech University, University of Indiana, and Ohio State University.
Activists: Sideline apparel supplier
by Herbert L. White, The Charlotte Post (NC)