By Travis Pillow
“The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want…” – Mark 14:7
“What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” – Mark 8:36
Dear Tim Tebow,
Over the four years we’ve been attending this university together, I feel like I’ve gotten to know you. Not that we’ve talked much, except those freshman-year mornings at Gator Dining when we were both in line for the cheese grits and I’d ask you if you’d be staying here all four years (you told me then what you announced to thousands of cheering fans this spring — another promise kept).
I’ve really gotten to know you because you may be the most prodigiously covered athlete in the history of college sports. I can’t go a week without seeing you on the front page of ESPN.com. I can’t go to the store without seeing you on the cover of some magazine. I can scarcely go a day without seeing your name somewhere in the local headlines. And it’s not like I’m really looking. As your mentors like to say, you have a platform, which you’ve used to promote positive messages, from personal morality to concern for those less fortunate.
It’s out of concern for those less fortunate — specifically, the workers who make your hot-selling Nike jerseys and other Gator apparel — that I’m writing this letter. Your jersey earned the University Athletic Association $80,000 in licensing fees last year alone. For less than the amount they’ve made from No. 15, UAA could work to ensure that those jerseys aren’t made in sweatshops and that the workers who make them can provide for their families.
Word has it that your slogan for the past two seasons has been “finish strong.” You’re on your way out, and this will be the year that will define your legacy. Everyone’s expecting you to bring us another national championship. As of press time, so far, so good.
But, of course, the part of that legacy that matters most to you will be off the field — in the North Florida prisons and Filipino villages where you’ve earned a reputation that transcends sports. It’s the idea so plainly stated in that verse from Mark 8 that you wore on your eye black against Troy. As you said yourself in the Gainesville Sun this summer, “Football doesn’t really matter, but life does.”
Or as Austin Murphy put it in your Sports Illustrated cover profile, “Watching him pace the floor of a gymnasium packed with 660 wayward men hanging on his every syllable is to realize that regardless of what position Tebow eventually plays in the NFL, and for how long, the football phase of his life is merely a means to a greater end.”
That greater end is what concerns me. You see, I hope that, in the future, missionaries like your family will be able to bring little besides the Word when they travel to other countries, as the people there will already have the food and medicine they need to survive. I hope that, one day, Filipino children won’t need Uncle Dick’s Home because they will have families who can afford to take care of them. I’m sure somewhere along the way you’ve wrestled with the question of why those Filipino children are poor in the first place — after all, you’ve spent long hours between practices raising money to help them buy food and other necessities.
Regardless of what happens on draft night, it’s clear you have a promising future doing what matters most to you: becoming a charitable powerhouse, setting up more orphanages and raising millions of dollars to help people in need all over the world. But it may never be possible to feed and clothe half the world’s population, who struggle to get by on less than $2 a day, through charity alone. Right now, you’re in a position to help empower the world’s poor to feed and clothe themselves.
If you had become a Gator a decade earlier, there’s a good chance your jerseys would have been made in the Philippines. The islands where you were born were once home to Nike apparel factories that paid their workers pitiful wages for shifts of 12 hours or more as they rushed to fill the next order of licensed collegiate athletic apparel. But in the late ’90s, Nike decided even those sweatshops were too expensive. The factories were closed, and now many No. 15 jerseys are made in Thailand.
Licensed Gator baby gear is made in El Salvador. Campus Chinos embroidered with thumbnail-sized Alberts are made in the Chinese territory of Macau. Many Gators tagless T-shirts are made in Honduras, where two factories that made Nike apparel recently closed without paying their workers a combined $2.1 million in severance and other compensation they were allegedly owed under Honduran law.
You told the New York Times that you’re passionate about “making a difference for people who can’t make a difference for themselves.” The workers who sew No. 15 jerseys and other lucrative Gator merchandise would surely qualify. They may not be in a position to force Nike’s contractors to give them the pay they deserve, but colleges like UF, which sign contracts with companies like Nike allowing them to profit by selling official team merchandise, can use their leverage to help ensure the rights and improve the working conditions of the people who make that merchandise.
UF is currently a member of the Fair Labor Association, a group that promotes companies that adhere to its specifications for proper working conditions. The problem is that the FLA receives much of its funding from the apparel industry itself, and mainly encourages companies like Nike to police themselves. It also does not require that workers be paid a living wage, generally defined as enough to provide basic necessities for a family of four, which is essential if we want to help lift the people out of poverty in the countries that make our clothes.
For the same $50,000 UF spends annually on its FLA membership , we could join the Worker Rights Consortium, which exposed the injustice in Honduras. Joining WRC would also allow UF to require the companies who sell our licensed apparel to pay their workers a living wage.
Earlier this season, you stuck it to Lane Kiffin and the Tennessee Volunteers, who never beat you in your four years as a Gator. But their athletic program still has one thing on ours: they’re a member of the WRC. Later this season, you’ll be running over WRC members Vanderbilt and South Carolina. They might not have bragging rights on the field, but they boast stronger protections of worker rights.
By speaking out against sweatshops and advocating for the WRC, you can set that straight. The rest of the SEC has nothing on us in terms of marketing power because nothing sells like championships. That means we have more leverage to compel companies like Nike and Champion to ensure that the workers who make their athletic gear don’t work in sweatshop conditions. If you speak out now, the spotlight that follows you everywhere you go will shine on the world’s poor. Millions of ESPN viewers could be moved to join you in the fight against sweatshops and the poverty that comes with them.
Many of your fellow students don’t realize what an impact we can have. Even without the advocacy of high-profile athletes, students at other big football schools like Penn State, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and the University of Miami have convinced their schools to join the WRC because they realized they were in a unique position to correct an injustice. But as you’ve seen in your own work, sometimes it takes a prominent role model to inspire people to action.
You’ve got a few months left at the University of Florida. Finish strong.