Full Of HOT Air, Chicago: Niketown Workers Allege Racial Discrimination.

By Off the BASN Sports Wire
Updated: April 1, 2006

CHICAGO—Eighteen current and former employees of Chicago’s Niketown were granted class-action status in a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination against the company’s store on Michigan Ave.

The workers claim that Niketown’s Chicago location, one of 15 Niketown stores owned by the Beaverton, Ore.-based company, practiced systematic discrimination in its hiring, promotions, benefits and workplace discipline, thus subjecting the plaintiffs to a hostile environment. The 2003 suit also alleges that African American customers, including professional athletes Tyson Chandler of the Chicago Bulls and three Green Bay Packer football players, were subject to greater scrutiny and monitoring at the Chicago store.

According to the Chicago Tribune, a federal judge expanded the base of plaintiffs in the case to include more than 230 African Americans who have worked at the store since Dec. 17, 1999, which is four years before the case was originally filed.

Among the allegations named in the lawsuit are: segregating African Americans into lower-paying stockroom and cashier positions; denying opportunities for promotions to sales positions by failing to post job openings; hiring African Americans into part-time rather than full-time positions that received benefits, such as health insurance and paid vacation; and subjecting African American employees to searches when leaving the store, while Caucasian employees were free from such searches. Work rules regarding attendance, sick leave and employee discounts also were unequally applied, the suit said.

According to the Tribune, marketing experts believe the allegations are unsettling to executives at Nike Inc., a company that relies on high-profile black athletes, such as Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, in its marketing campaigns.

“Minority groups tend to pay more attention to this type of issue than others,” said Christie Nordhielm, a clinical associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. “The fact that the Chicago Niketown is a flagship store, it will cause a bigger fuss than most.”

Nike spokesman Vada Manager said in a statement about the lawsuit: “We want to communicate to our customers that we don’t believe the allegations made in the case are consistent with our culture of inclusion and respect. We don’t believe this reflects our corporate philosophy.”

The plaintiffs claim that between January 2001 and May 2003, fewer than 25 percent of the commissioned sales specialists, the highest-paid employees, were African American. Nike counters that its employment data from 1999 to 2004 show that more than 63 percent of the sales positions were filled by African Americans.

The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of damages, including lost wages and benefits. A status hearing in the case is planned for next week.