The United States Olympic Committee is raising eyebrows over yesterday's news that the "Go USA" mittens sold on its website are made in China.
The "wardrobe malfunction," as the Associated Press called it, comes less than two years after fans and politicians criticized the USOC and Team USA clothing sponsor Ralph Lauren for the Chinese-made team uniforms worn in the London Olympics. After that incident, the USOC vowed that all uniforms going forward would be made in America, starting with the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
As CNN noted at the time, the controversy provided a prime opportunity for members of Congress who had just introduced a jobs bill imploring companies to "Make It in America" and were highlighting the struggling textile and apparel industries as a casualty of globalization and increased automation. According to the American Apparel and Footwear Association, just 2.5 percent of the $350 billion spent on clothing in 2012 was domestically made, while the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of jobs from clothing manufacturing declined by 80 percent from 1990 to 2011, amounting to about 750,000 lost jobs.
The desire to have our nation's best athletes wear uniforms that represent our economic competitiveness is understandable, if not a tad jingoistic. Much of the clothing that's still made in the U.S. is military uniforms, in accordance with the Berry Amendment. If we require our warriors on the battlefield to wear American apparel, shouldn't we expect the same from our warriors on the Olympic field?
But placing the same mandates on all Team USA gear, specifically the "Go USA" mittens, brings up a separate issue. The Chinese-made mittens are sold on the website for the sole purpose of fundraising, as USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky pointed out. This is an important distinction when you consider that, unlike many other countries' Olympic teams, the USOC receives no government funding and is responsible for its own revenue through donations and sponsorship. This money covers not just administrative and logistical costs, but also training for amateur athletes with low incomes. The DMA Nonprofit Federation estimates that nine out of 10 Olympians earn less that $20,000 a year, while only half the country is aware that the USOC is not-for-profit.
The USOC decided to sell the mittens at the relatively low cost of $14 to "create a fundraising opportunity where almost anyone could support Team USA," Sandusky said. Those mittens have generated $500,000 in sales and are separate from the official gear that will be worn by the athletes competing in February. Fans who want to support both American sports and American manufacturing can also purchase the domestically made gloves -- for $68. In offering both, the USOC is doing nothing more than maximizing its capacity to expand its revenue and brand, a strategy not unlike Apple's recent unveiling of the cheaper iPhone 5C alongside its premium iPhone 5S.
Any criticism against the USOC is, therefore, misplaced. The organization isn't some evil, profit-driven company benefiting from corporate subsidies while driving down costs and increasing its bottom line by selling products made by sweatshop labor. The USOC is just a charity whose enormous success is made all the more impressive by just how little federal assistance it receives.