Nike to alter image of strip mine in promo ad for coal-themed WVU football uniform

By Vicki Smith, AP
Thursday, September 2, 2010

Nike to alter uniform ad that upset mine activists

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After angry environmentalists objected to a Nike promotional ad for a new West Virginia University football uniform, the athletic apparel giant said Thursday it will modify a graphic depicting a mountaintop removal mine.

Nike issued a statement through the university, repeating what the school had said earlier in the day: The new black and white Pro Combat uniform was designed to honor the heritage of coal mining and 29 men killed in the April explosion at Upper Big Branch mine.

“We are modifying the graphic of the player on our website to address concerns,” the statement said.

The Oregon-based company did not return repeated messages from The Associated Press.

The Mountaineers will wear the coal-themed uniform for only one game this season, the Nov. 26 Backyard Brawl at Pittsburgh. Nike paid for the new gear.

The problem environmental activists had with the ad was not the color of the gear — off-white that appears coated in coal dust — or the number 29 on the coal-black helmets. It’s the depiction of a mountaintop removal mine behind the image of a player, complete with flat, treeless mountaintop, the sound of an explosion and the image of falling rock.

The ad appeared to be a tacit endorsement of the controversial form of strip mining, the activists argued.

Before Nike announced it would modify the ad, opposition was rampant.

Danny Chiotos of Charleston, youth organizer for the Student Environmental Action Coalition, said that WVU football is a uniting force for a small state that lacks a professional team, and for the university to seemingly take a side upsets people.

“I’m largely amused by it and kind of bewildered by it,” Chiotos said. “They should come up with a better ad that actually promotes WVU football and the memory of the miners and mine safety.”

By depicting a surface mine that also resembles the open pit mines of western states like Wyoming, the original ad also missed a key point about Upper Big Branch: The Massey Energy Co. mine that exploded April 5 was an underground operation.

The graphics were designed by Nike and reviewed by WVU officials.

“The intent was for the player on the field to be surrounded by coal and not as an endorsement of any one form of mining technology,” WVU athletics said in a brief e-mail.

The ad plunged both the school and the world’s largest athletic shoe and clothing maker into one of West Virginia’s most emotionally charged and political divisive issues.

Mountaintop removal was the sole issue of a candidate who ran in last week’s special primary to fill the seat of late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, and both industry and environmentalists are lobbying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over the practice.

Naoma activist Bo Webb demanded the immediate removal of the ad and apologies to the people in the southern coalfields who have been hurt by mountaintop mining.

“I am so angry. I love football, and I will not watch WVU again,” said Webb, who was in Washington, D.C., with other activists on Monday, urging President Barack Obama’s administration to outlaw mountaintop removal. It was a prelude to a much larger “Appalachia Rising” rally planned for Sept. 27.

“I hope the players understand that they’re being used and rise up. I’d like them to say, ‘I’m not being pimped out by Nike and the state of West Virginia and the coal industry,” he said, “and I would like to see WVU admit, ‘We made a huge mistake.’”

Webb said it’s possible the ad was designed by an artist who didn’t realize the implications of using strip mine imagery, but he’s skeptical of Oregon-based Nike.

“Maybe they’re naive, but I doubt it,” he said. “I seriously doubt it.”

Mountaintop removal is done mainly in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Forests are clear-cut, explosives blast apart the ridgetops, and massive machines scoop the exposed coal from multiple seams. The debris left behind is dumped into valleys, covering streams with what are called valley fills.

Coal operators say it’s the most efficient way to reach some reserves, but people who live near the mines say it’s too destructive, ruining their home values, their environment and their health.

The industry, too, is planning a rally in Washington. Its Sept. 15 event will focus on what it considers unfair regulations and the need for jobs.

WVU senior Joe Gorman said Nike and the school should honor underground miners “without glorifying the mountaintop removal that’s destroying West Virginia’s heritage and the mountains that make us the Mountaineers.”

“The ad says, ‘It’s just the way things are done in West Virginia,’” Gorman said, “but miners and residents of the southern coalfields have been fighting strip mining and mountaintop removal since before I was born, and that’s something to be proud of, too.”


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