Swooshed in Providence

I know I am in the minority in lamenting the commercialization of college athletics and for years have defended the far-from-the-big-time Ivy League idea of sports as a valuable extracurricular activity not to be confused with the main purpose of a university. The Ivy League, like Division III in the NCAA, does not even offer athletic scholarships (at least not officially). So I was less than thrilled to get a recent announcement that Brown, my alma mater and the nation’s eighth oldest college, founded in 1764, is joining forces at last with the billion dollar brand Nike. To wit, athletes from Brown’s 38 undergraduate teams will henceforth be wearing uniforms bearing that ubiquitous corporate logo that says, without words, “this jersey was provided in exchange for promoting a multinational corporation that has colonized American collegiate athletics for profit and market share.” The e-blast also informed me that, as a member of the Brown family I would soon be able to buy my very own Brown sports apparel with “the iconic Nike swoosh” through online stores that are Nike subsidiaries. I guess I was supposed to think, “Wow, cool.”

Instead, I was thinking it might be a good time to click the link at the bottom of the page to “unsubscribe” from future news about Brown Athletics, providing the simple explanation alluded to above. I copied my explanation to the office of Christina Paxson, Brown’s president. The next day I heard back from Davies Bisset, executive director of the Brown Sports Foundation (see below), who declined to address the issue I raised about the quid pro quo involved in corporate sponsorship of college athletes but volunteered that if I had “specific questions” about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship I should contact the deputy director of athletics. I am not going to do that, but if I were to contact the deputy director of athletics, I would ask him the same question I subsequently posed to Mr. Bisset: What part of quid pro quo don’t you understand?

Here is my response to Mr. Bisset, followed by his earlier email:

Thank you, Davies Bisset, for acknowledging my email, but I wonder whether you or others associated with Brown Athletics see the problem here? Doing a little research online, I found an article from Harvard Magazine titled “The Professionalization of Ivy League Sports” in which former Harvard athletic director Bill Cleary stated: “Now, all the buzzwords are about sponsorship. I think it takes away from the whole spirit of athletics. Everywhere you see the Nike ‘swoosh’ — in my opinion, that means, ‘I own you.’ ”

Precisely. The article went on to say, “Sports apparel has evolved into a type of sandwich board, with vendors like Nike and Adidas eager to dress high-profile college teams in their clothing in exchange for promotional considerations. But Harvard adheres to another quaint idea: on the field, the athletes represent their school, not a corporate sponsor.” (Italics mine.)

Quaint indeed. That article is from 1997. I see that Harvard has since dispensed with such high-mindedness and welcomed the Nike branding of its athletes even before Brown could join the queue. Which made me realize Brown Athletics had a chance to be different, for a good reason, and stand apart from the herd. Instead we just went along with the herd. Not the way I want to think of my distinguished alma mater, but not much I can do about it. I am reminded of another article, in the current issue of Harper’s Magazine, “How College Sold Its Soul and Surrendered to the Market,” by the former Yale professor William Deresciewicz. If you haven’ read it, I recommend it. Quite relevant.

Since graduation, I have regularly kept up with Brown teams — especially men’s soccer — more than most of the alumni I am touch with from my era. I have traveled to games and watched on television, checked the sports pages and website. I will probably continue to do so, but it won’t be quite the same, spotting that proprietary swoosh next to the word “Brown.” That will never look right, at least not to me.


Sean Mitchell ’70


On Aug 28, 2015, at 2:15 PM, Bisset, Davies wrote:

Dear Sean:
I received a copy of your email message regarding the Athletic Department announcement of their new partnership with Nike Sportswear. Please know that the Athletic Director and the President’s office also received your message. I am writing to you from the Brown Sports Foundation, which is part of the Brown Advancement Office. The BUSF is the engagement and fundraising organization for Brown alumni, parents, faculty, students and friends who are interested in Brown Athletics.

I wanted to suggest that if you have specific questions about the Brown Athletics-Nike relationship that you contact the Deputy Director of Athletics directly. His name is Colin Sullivan and I have copied him on this message.

Per your request, we will remove your name from future messages from Brown Athletics. As a representative of the Brown Sports Foundation, I certainly hope that you will decide at some point to receive Brown Athletic messages again. There are many positive things happening with our student-athletes on campus, and President Paxson has been an active supporter of athletics and recreation at the University since her arrival. We like to keep our alumni informed and connected, especially when our teams travel to other parts of the country. (Our men’s basketball team will be in Dallas in late November, for instance.)

Please know that we appreciated you taking the time to contact us with your comments and that your message has been sent on to the appropriate contacts in Athletics. Do not hesitate to contact us again for any reason.

Best regards and Go Brown,

Davies Bisset ’85

Todd Andrews ’83, VP, Alumni Relations; Jack Hayes and Colin Sullivan, Athletics; Kim Roskiewicz, Office of the President

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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One Response to Swooshed in Providence

  • Bud Brooks says:

    Sean, in many ways you are right. I lament the Nike branding, too, although it might have been better had it been Under Armour or Adidas or some other brand. For me, it’s more about Nike itself, as it has always been the worst of them. Brown needs to keep up with the Joneses though, and without doing so, they’d fall further behind, as they are in many of the major sports already.

    Bud Brooks, St. Mark’s ’79, St. Mark’s parent ’17, Brown ’83.

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