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Bridget Foley’s Diary: Olympic Posturing

The bipartisan Congressional outrage over Ralph Lauren’s gift of uniforms to the U.S. Olympic Committee is ill-informed, misguided and silly on many levels.

Boundless anecdotal evidence suggests that many U.S. elected officials do not mind if they’re perceived as slimy. This whole Olympics brouhaha suggests they don’t mind being perceived as stupid, either.

This story first appeared in the July 16, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The bipartisan Congressional outrage over Ralph Lauren’s gift of uniforms to the U.S. Olympic Committee is ill-informed, misguided and silly on many levels. It was also forceful enough to push Lauren to announce on Friday evening that the next time around, in 2014, he will produce the Olympic uniforms in the U.S. Before railing on about how this particular sponsorship has taken food off of American tables, did any of the railers consider how many people Ralph Lauren Corp. employs in the United States? How many additional Americans the brand employs around the world? How much the company pumps into the U.S. economy on an annual basis? How it represents the U.S. in a positive light around the globe — an increasingly rare occurrence these days?

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Before expounding on the evils of made in China, did any of these congressional blowhards check the labels in their own closets? Where are their gym clothes made? Their suits? Their shoes? Do they all strive to buy American? Or, like most people, when a suit/dress/sneaker/etc. looks appealing and fits body and budget, do they — for better or worse — not give a second thought to country of origin?

Personal wardrobes aside, this political grandstanding panders to the most base and jingoistic of populist sentiments while ignoring the essential role of the private sector in stepping up where the public sector (correctly, in my opinion) recuses itself. As the USOC indicated in its statement on the matter, unlike many Olympic teams, the U.S. team is not government-subsidized. According to their voting records, most of the senators and congressmen whose comments I’ve read are neither absolute free-traders nor stalwart protectionists. They are all political opportunists who chose the inflammatory quip over informed restraint.

“The Olympic committee should be ashamed of themselves.…They should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them and start all over again,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D., Nev.). “If they have to wear nothing but a singlet that says USA on it, painted by hand, then that’s what they should wear.” Flammable rhetoric, even if the senator wins some points for invocation of the word “singlet.”

Others who weighed in with media-ready disgust include House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.); House Speaker John Boehner, (R., Ohio); Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, (D., N.Y.) and Representative Steve Israel, (D., N.Y.) Gillibrand and Israel co-authored a letter to USOC chairman Lawrence Probst.

“There is no compelling reason why all of the uniforms cannot be made here on U.S. soil at the same price, at better quality,” they declared. One wonders on what information the senator and representative based this statement. If by “all uniforms” they mean just that — all uniforms including competitive gear for all, basketball players, swimmers, gymnasts, etc. — are they aware of a sleeper U.S. manufacturing base that produces state-of-the-art athleticwear? Have they commissioned an in-depth cost analysis of producing domestically versus in China? We’d all love to see the numbers.

Senator Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) invoked the patriotism of the athletes who, he said in his statement, “don’t train their entire lives to don Chinese uniforms. Team USA is seeing red instead of red, white and blue.” Did a staffer write that one with a straight face? Does Sen. Schumer — or anyone on Earth — think a U.S. athlete who medals will deem the accomplishment diminished because he or she wore a leotard or Speedo made in China?

The statement went on to say, “Luckily, the President of Hickey Freeman, Mike Cohen, called me to personally commit that his company is ready, willing and able to lead the charge in producing American-made uniforms in time for the upcoming Olympic ceremonies. This shows that great American companies and their workers stand ready and able to quickly produce the U.S. Olympic uniforms, and who better to produce the formalwear than the best American suit maker, Hickey Freeman.”

One might infer that Sen. Schumer does not consider Ralph Lauren a great American company — an appalling conclusion. No other brand has done more to telegraph American style around the globe. Hickey Freeman’s offer aside, few brands — probably a total of none that produce primarily in the U.S. — have both the resources and willingness to take on such a costly sponsorship.

Most offensive, this professed outrage by members of Congress ignores the fact that Ralph Lauren the man is someone who declares his patriotism regularly, without embarrassment, and puts his money where his sentiments are — not just when the Olympics roll around. How many millions did Lauren plunk down a few years ago to restore the tattered Old Glory?

It is indeed sad that U.S. apparel manufacturing has declined to near nonexistence. That painful shrinkage started about the middle of the last century due to many, often complicated reasons. One major factor, the labor-cost component, isn’t difficult for anyone to understand.

Members of Congress who feel passionate about reviving some of the United States’ former manufacturing majesty have it within their power to study whether that goal, however noble, is viable, and how best to go about it in an adult and productive manner.

To gorge like a pack of hungry rats on the notion that the USOC should reject sponsorship from an extremely generous, powerhouse American company because that company produces off-shore is counterproductive, trivializing a major economic issue into opportunistic, childish sound bites.