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Pro sports 'fanwear' should be made in USA

Between now and Election Day, be poised to hear a lot about "Made in the USA" from congressional candidates, particularly those in the old Rust Belt, but very little political talk linking the subject to professional sports.

Baseball's opening day excitements and the National Football League's rollout of its new relationship with Nike two weeks ago obscured the unpleasant fact that our sports obsessions have helped put hundreds of thousands of American apparel and textile workers on the sidewalk.

The overwhelming bulk of so-called "fanwear" -- the caps, the jackets and the numbered shirts -- is made in other countries. One exception is New Era Cap Co., which makes officially licensed apparel at its plant in Derby.

Professional sports rigorously regulates the colors, logos and design of this apparel. In their licensing agreements, the leagues are very tough about price, and profits on each piece of "official" merchandise. But the leagues maintain no oversight over the working conditions of the people making the stuff, according to Scott Nova, executive director of the Workers Rights Consortium.

It's a conscience issue, or ought to be. "People should not be wearing apparel without understanding the conditions under which it's made," Nova told me. The consortium includes 100 universities, including the University at Buffalo and my alma mater, Brown University, which joins in investigating how workers making sports gear are treated and paid.

Professional sports ought to be part of that movement. Maybe the Jets' Tim Tebow, a man of conscience, can lead the way.

Nike spokesmen told me the NFL players' pants and jerseys showboated two weeks ago are made in this country. They refused to tell me the company names or locations. Under massive public pressure six years ago, Nike did agree to list the names of companies in China, Thailand, Central America and elsewhere that make components for their brands.

And in some instances, Nike acknowledged abuses by its overseas suppliers who violate what Nike says is its code on how suppliers are supposed to treat their workers. Last year, Nike admitted that at an Indonesian plant that makes shoes, workers were physically and verbally abused. The firm admitted there is little it can do about it.

While Nike insists it checks on its suppliers, the leagues have no compliance system of their own. "This has not proven historically to be a successful pathway to reform," Nova said.

Beyond the conscience aspects, there is the issue of fairness.

Taxpayers from Oakland to Washington have poured billions into giving league owners gleaming places to put on their shows. The Buffalo Bills are said to be looking for $100 million in public funds for upgraded or new facilities. Local and state governments have been left holding the bag in Minneapolis, Cincinnati and elsewhere for arenas.

Jack Davis, the Akron manufacturer and founder of the American Jobs Alliance, puts it this way: "If the Bills expect taxpayers to pony up $100 million, they should be spending their money hiring Americans, not cheap foreign labor." Mark Levinson, researcher for Workers United, the union for apparel workers, said the leagues "seem to have no concern for the American worker. There ought to be some sort of quid-pro-quo" for what sports owners get from the public.

Starting a "Buy American" campaign with professional sports owners, and the players unions, will need the kind of pressure that Nova's group has mounted on college campuses.

The leagues spend a million or so lobbying Congress and donating to candidates; a token amount these days. The reason for the official silence is, frankly, that the leagues have the traditional media in their pockets, and have their own propaganda architecture on cable, Facebook, Twitter and the rest of the social network.