By Brian O'Neill

Nike outruns the best of the dumb and dumber

Thursday, November 02, 2000

In an increasingly coarse world, one of the most difficult feats in sports is to find new ways to offend people. Nike has succeeded.

Here's a slice of the print advertisement that The Biggest Sneaker Company Of Them All recently pulled, with a corporate apology, from the nation's magazines:

"Right about now you're probably asking yourself, 'How can a trail running shoe with an outer sole designed like a goat's hoof help me avoid compressing my spinal cord into a Slinky on the side of some unsuspecting conifer, thereby rendering me a drooling, misshapen non-extreme trail running husk of my former self, forced to roam the earth in a motorized wheelchair with my name, embossed on one of those cute little license plates you get at carnivals or state fairs, fastened to the back?' "

Since backlash against that ad began about 10 days ago, Nike has been backpedaling like a cornerback. But Dr. Peg Reidy, medical director of UPMC Rehabilitation Hospital, isn't buying it.

Reidy thinks it's no coincidence that this ad closely followed the commercial that ran during the Summer Olympics, showing runner Suzy Favor Hamilton in a sports bra running from a chain saw-wielding psycho.

"It's clear they got a ton of free air time out of all the coverage of that [chain saw] ad being pulled."

She figures Nike executives made the Machiavellian calculation that they could get more publicity out of another offensive ad and subsequent apology. Nike's core audience, after all, is not disabled.

I think it's more likely that Nike was just plain stupid. Either way, the purveyors of that omnipresent Swoosh miscalculated. This issue won't go away if athletes like Rory Cooper have anything to say about it.

I went Tuesday to the Veterans Affairs Pittsburgh Health Care System in the East End and met Cooper. He chairs the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Rehabilitation Science and Technology and directs research for the local VA health care system.

He also has been using a wheelchair to get around for the past 20 years, the result of his bicycle colliding with a tractor-trailer in Germany. Cooper was an athlete then, a middle-distance runner who qualified for the Olympic track trials, and he's an athlete now. Thirteen years ago, Cooper set the world record in the 10,000-meter race for wheelchair athletes.

You don't need Cooper to explain why he was offended by the ad. But he'd like Nike to know the patronizing apology that appeared on the company Web page earlier this week displayed just as much ignorance. Here is what that said:

"We have hurt a group of people for whom we have enormous admiration," wrote Dan Wieden, chief executive of the ad agency that penned the offense. "These are men and women who demonstrate more courage in a single day than most of us will in our lifetime..."

Oh, please. Hold the violins.

"I don't want to be viewed as courageous just by getting through the day," Cooper told me. "I work and have a family just like you. Nobody calls you a hero just for getting up in the morning."

Nike just "went from one extreme to the other. They just don't get it. They still don't get it."

Actually, belatedly, they are getting it. A new apology went up on the Web site yesterday. The patronizing tone went with it:

"Down to a man and woman, every Nike employee [among the 21,000 worldwide] is personally embarrassed by this ad and we vow to learn from this mistake and grow both personally and professionally."

The humility was perfectly appropriate, and perfectly new for a company that long has promoted a peculiar strain of narcissism, garnished with celebrity worship.

It shouldn't be that tough to sell sneakers without tripping on your tongue every month or so. Just do it.