NIKE ON THIN ICE WITH HARDING PLOY

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Nike has had more turnovers than the Buffalo Bills lately.

First, its major benefactor, Michael Jordan, retires and then jumps to another sport where the players wear cleats. Then Nike runs the inexplicable Dennis Hopper "crazed referee" ads extolling the virtues of sniffing shoes.

Then we have the Tonya Harding affair.

When Bob Garfield wrote, in his usual forthright manner, that the Hopper spots for Nike might be a mite insensitive to people with mental and emotional problems, most of our readers thought Bob was hopelessly out of it ("Bob Garfield needs to loosen his tie-it's strangling his abi ity to recognize an ad that hits its audience," read one).

Bob didn't realize that it's simply Politically Incorrect to criticize anything coming out of Nike's ad agency, Wieden & Kennedy (just as it's Politically Incorrect to criticize anything coming out of the entire state of Oregon).

Nike's $25,000 grant to Tonya Harding is a great example of not only bad timing but also bad PR. The young woman already had admitted to knowing persons close to her were responsible in the attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan right after it happened, so at the very least she's guilty of a cover-up (didn't that almost get President Nixon impeached?) And isn't a cover-up "due process" enough for the U.S. Olympic Committee to kick her off the team?

If it does, and she is, does Tonya still get to keep Nike's money? It already appears that an earlier grant, which baseball's George Steinbrenner fed to Ms. Harding through the U.S. Figure Skating Assn., may have been used in part in the Kerrigan attack.

Nike clearly needs a three-pointer to pull out a PR victory here. Despite its claim that the company is not seeking Tonya Harding's services as an endorser, it's hard not to have the feeling that Nike has something in store for Ms. Harding.

Nike's decision to set up the Tonya Harding Defense Fund has nothing but disaster going for it. Ms. Harding, in the best of circumstances, does not engender good vibrations from sports fans. So Nike's statement that Tonya should be presumed innocent until proven guilty will not win it any friends-unless it is members of the ACLU, and they aren't known to buy basketball sneakers in significant numbers.

As the company that employs the boorish two-sport star Deion Sanders, Nike seems to have the attitude that any publicity is good publicity, but I think the company's $25,000 contribution will be perceived as a blatant attempt to cash in on a big story.

Nike has been stung of late by declining sales of basketball shoes and has increasingly been diversifying into the "fashionable outdoor category." I expect that if Ms. Harding cops a plea and gets sent to a minimum security prison she'll have lots of time for casual strolls in the exercise yards. We can all guess whose brand of casual apparel she'll be wearing.

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