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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Nike improves image with fitness project for American Indians

By Anne M. Peterson
Associated Press

BEAVERTON, Ore. — As an American Indian who lost his mother to diabetes, Sam McCracken is using his role as a Nike Inc. executive to combat the illness — and help Nike boost its reputation for social responsibility.

"Somehow, some way, my path as an individual took me here and allowed me to get my feet on the ground here at Nike, and it gave me a good understanding of what Nike could do for our population," said McCracken, who is from the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana.

McCracken, Nike's manager of American Indian business, helped the athletic footwear and apparel company start a program with the federal Indian Health Service to address health and fitness on reservations. The project is one of several Nike has undertaken to improve its image after being criticized for conditions at its foreign manufacturing plants during the 1990s.

Nike has also launched programs that encourage exercise among young people, raised money for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, financed loans for rural women in Asia and organized the recycling of millions of shoes.

Image effort praised

Marketing experts say it's a good move.

"There's an argument to be made that it (Nike's philanthropy) does end up selling shoes," said Paul Swangard, managing director for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

But, Swangard said, "what I've liked about Nike is that one of their maxims has always been 'Do the right thing.' "

According to the IHS, diabetes levels among American Indians and Alaskan natives are 2.6 times greater than those in the general U.S. population. Of particular focus is Type 2 diabetes, also known as adult-onset diabetes, which can be controlled with diet and exercise.

Under the agreement between the IHS and Nike, the company is holding workshops to teach tribal representatives health and wellness techniques they can take back to their tribes. The stated goal: "To help those communities gain a better understanding of the importance of exercise at any age, particularly for those individuals with diabetes."

In February, representatives of some 48 tribes, mostly in the Pacific Northwest, took part in workshops on Nike's Beaverton campus. The first day was devoted to practical lessons in cardiovascular, weight and flexibility training.

Vernon Kennedy, a prevention education specialist for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, of Grand Ronde, Ore., attended the workshop. He works with tribal children, teaching them the dangers of tobacco and alcohol use, as well as the benefits of physical fitness..

Countering criticism

In the late 1990s, Nike was criticized because of abusive or unsafe working conditions at plants in Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and other countries. The company responded with a greater focus on corporate responsibility, including the IHS project.

McCracken works for a Nike program that tries to promote diversity within the company, and to strengthen ties outside the company with American Indians, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders, disabled people, Asia-Pacific Islanders and blacks.

The IHS project — known as the Native American Diabetes Prevention Program — began after McCracken got a call from the diabetes coordinator for his tribe in Montana in 2000.

The coordinator had an idea for encouraging tribal members to get checked for diabetes, giving them Nike-donated sneakers if they came into the clinic to get blood work done.

At that moment, as McCracken put it: "the light goes on for me."

Last fall, Nike and the IHS held Native American Health and Fitness Day in Albuquerque, N.M., highlighted by a walk led by Indian professional golfer Notah Begay. Then came the workshops at Nike's campus. Nike is exploring ways to hold similar workshops across the country.

Through the alliance with the IHS, the diabetes prevention program and other efforts, Nike works with more than 60 tribes in the United States.