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Adidas sells diversity, but black employees say it doesn't practice it

Interviews with more than 20 current or former Adidas employees show the company's predominantly white leadership struggling with issues of race and discrimination

By Julie Creswell and Kevin Draper
Published: Jun 20, 2019

Adidas sells diversity, but black employees say it doesn't practice itThe Adidas headquarters in Portland, Ore., April 5, 2019. Black employees at the company’s Portland campus describe a workplace culture which belies the brand’s image. (Chona Kasinger/The New York Times)

In the United States, Adidas has built much of its name — and sales — through its association with black superstars. In the 1980s, the seminal hip-hop group Run-DMC gave the company’s sneakers and apparel cultural cachet through its song “My Adidas.” Popular black athletes and entertainers like James Harden, Candace Parker and Kanye West endorse its products.

In April, Adidas announced a new partnership with Beyoncé Knowles. Knowles posted a photo on Instagram that showed her reclining on a pile of Adidas sneakers and wearing a red Adidas bodysuit. The image was liked more than 7 million times.

Black employees at the company’s North American headquarters in Portland, Oregon, however, describe a workplace culture that contradicts the brand’s image. Interviews with more than 20 current or former Adidas employees show the company’s predominantly white leadership struggling with issues of race and discrimination. On the campus, known as Adidas Village, the employees say, race is a constant issue, leaving the relatively few black employees often feeling marginalized and sometimes discriminated against.

Of the nearly 1,700 Adidas employees at the Portland campus, fewer than 4.5% identify as black, according to internal employment figures from last summer that were shared with The New York Times.

Adidas employees who spoke to The Times said that in the company cafeteria, black employees often sit together. Some said they had been told that this made some of their white colleagues nervous and could hurt their chances of getting promotions or being put on important marketing campaigns if it appeared that they were not trying to fit the Adidas mold.

Several current and former Adidas employees said they were frequently the only black person in meetings and often felt their input was not valued when decisions were being made. And an overall lack of racial diversity, they said, meant it was not uncommon for negative stereotypes to creep into work discussions or marketing pitches involving black athletes, sometimes creating backlash outside the company. Even when such ideas were scuttled before becoming part of official advertising campaigns, black employees said, the conversations left them feeling uncomfortable.

For many, the internal tensions at Adidas reflect a larger issue facing the American sports apparel industry, which has a combined annual revenue of more than $20 billion on shoe sales alone. Companies like Adidas, Nike and Under Armour have workforces that are primarily white, but their most influential customers — those who make their products desirable to others — often are not.

At Adidas, the issues involving race are not limited to business, black employees said.

Two black employees said they had been referred to with a common racist slur by white co-workers, one verbally and one in a text message seen by The Times. In both instances, the people believed the slur was intended as a joke, which they felt only highlighted the company’s skewed perspective on race.

All of the current and former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared hurting their careers.

Karen Parkin, the global head of human resources for Adidas, said in an interview that the company knew that it had work to do on the issue of race.

Parkin said Adidas had “zero tolerance” for inappropriate behavior. She said that she was unaware of the incidents involving the slurs and that, if they had been reported to human resources, an investigation would have occurred.

“We want to be humble,” Parkin said. “We’re not where we need to be in all of the locations around the world. But we’re not afraid to have the conversation, either.”

— ‘A lot of lip service’

For Adidas, the ties to black stars have paid off. The company’s stock, which trades in Germany, where its global headquarters are, has more than doubled in the past three years. Its revenue has been growing robustly, and its share of the North American sports-footwear market has jumped to 11% from 4% since 2015, according to the market research company NPD Group.

In the case of West, Adidas positioned his Yeezy brand as its own category inside the company. West earns 5% royalties on net sales of his shoes and apparel, according to a person inside the company with knowledge of the relationship. Yeezy sales are expected to top $1.3 billion this year. A spokeswoman for West declined to comment.

The benefits from the collaboration extend beyond selling $350 high-top shoes and high-end designer apparel. Almost overnight, West helped to make Adidas cool again.

“The association with Kanye West and how he sees himself as an artist — with design, music and culture — said this Adidas brand is not just a typical sports brand,” Mark King, then the head of Adidas North America, said in an interview with the trade publication Footwear News in 2016. “It’s one that looks at creativity and considers both sports and culture.” (King stepped down from his role in 2018.)

After West made his Adidas deal, other hip-hop stars like Pusha T established relationships with the company. Pharrell Williams, who was already working with Adidas, signed a new deal.

“I think Adidas is trying to align itself with the fans of those artists,” said Matt Powell, an analyst with NPD Group. “These artists have tremendous followings and fans. Those fans want to dress like their idols.”

It is much different inside the company. Fewer than 75 of the nearly 1,700 Adidas employees in Portland identify as black, according to the internal employment figures from last summer. Nearly 78% of the employees are white.

An Adidas spokeswoman, Stacey Marsh, did not dispute the figures obtained by The Times, and declined to comment on the composition of the staff at the company’s Portland headquarters. She said that 55% of the company’s total employee base in the United States, which includes employees paid hourly wages in its retail stores, were people of color.

Only three people, or about 1%, of Adidas’s roughly 340 worldwide vice presidents last year were black, according to two people with knowledge of the figures. One of the black executives, a female head of operations, has since departed.

Marsh said that Adidas could not provide information on the race or ethnicity of its employees at a global level because of country-specific laws.

The employee figures for other sports apparel giants are similarly stark. Last year, when Footwear News highlighted the top 40 people under 40 who it said were revolutionizing the shoe industry, the list did not include a single black person.

Nike says that at the end of 2017, about 23% of its American employees, including those working at its retail stores, were black. Of the company’s 353 vice presidents, 29, or 8%, were black.

Under Armour’s website lists its goals related to diversity and inclusion, but the company declined to provide data on the makeup of its workforce for this article.

“Companies spend billions of dollars on marketing and advertising to attract African American kids to their products, but they don’t do much to support the African Americans on the inside,” said D’Wayne Edwards, who started designing shoes in 1989 and worked at Nike, where he designed Air Jordan shoes. He now runs Pensole Footwear Design Academy in Portland.

“What is frustrating is that none of us are empowered to change it,” he added. “Some companies have said for years that they want to create a diverse workplace, but if anything, the numbers are getting worse. And they don’t care. It’s a lot of lip service.”

— Harden Uncaged and all-white shoes

The lack of diversity at Adidas has resulted in missteps that black employees argue could put the entire brand at risk.

This year, Adidas released all-white sneakers as part of a line meant to commemorate Black History Month. It removed the sneakers from stores after an outcry.

In 2012, Adidas released a pair of $350 sneakers featuring shackles. After the company faced boycott calls led by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, the sneakers were pulled and Adidas apologized for offending consumers.

At other times, it has fallen to black employees to stop insensitive marketing ideas before they were carried out.

In 2016, there was a meeting about the company’s latest sneaker for Harden, the Houston Rockets star. One idea was to make the shoe part of the company’s “uncaged” line. The ads for “Harden Uncaged,” the thinking went, could feature Harden breaking free from a prison cell.

When someone raised the question of whether such an image would invoke a negative racial stereotype, the proposal was rejected, according to three people who were at the meeting or aware of the idea and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The shoe was eventually marketed as Harden LS, for lifestyle.

Another idea, titled “All Rise,” featured Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers as a defendant in a courtroom, according to an employee involved in the discussion. Again, it was scuttled when a black employee pointed out the racial overtones of a black man’s being put on trial.

When asked about these instances, Marsh, the Adidas spokeswoman, said the company would not comment on “every anonymous rumor or allegation.”

— Contradictory messages from the top

At a town hall-style staff meeting at the Portland campus in spring 2018, Zion Armstrong, the current president of Adidas North America, acknowledged that the company needed to intensify its diversity efforts, according to three people who were there.

Months later, with no visible change in the company’s hiring efforts, an anonymous letter addressed to Armstrong and critical of Adidas’ strategies for becoming more diverse made its way around the campus. It was reported at the time by Footwear News.

A few weeks later, Armstrong attended a meeting of Progressive Soles, an employee-led organization within Adidas whose members are mostly minorities, and seemingly contradicted his earlier comments.

He declared that Adidas did not have a race problem, according to two people in attendance. Instead, he said, the company’s demographics reflected those of Portland, which is 77% white and 6% black, according to 2017 Census Bureau statistics. When asked why more black employees were not being promoted, Armstrong said there simply were not any who were ready.

Adidas declined to make Armstrong available for an interview and did not respond to questions about his meeting with Progressive Soles.

Several current and former Adidas employees said that minority employees often left the company in hopes of getting better jobs or higher pay after not receiving promotions they believed they deserved.

A few years ago, when some black employees recognized that there were not many black candidates going through the company’s internship program, Progressive Soles began recruiting efforts outside the Portland area to attract a more diverse pool of applicants. But few of those internships have led to job offers for the black candidates, several people at the company said.

Parkin noted that Portland “isn’t the most diverse city in the U.S.,” and said that Adidas “needs to be more courageous and bold” in attracting more diverse employees to the area.

“We’re on that journey right now,” she said.

Some artists are not simply taking the company’s word.

Late last year, shortly before the internal letter to Armstrong became public, Pharrell Williams went to Portland to see Adidas Village for himself, according to two employees. He walked around the campus, visiting with various groups, including those in the basketball division, that he does not normally work with, the employees said. A spokeswoman for Williams declined to comment.

In a 2016 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Williams said that one of his apparel and sneaker lines for Adidas called Hu — short for human — was about the “recognition and celebration of different colors, spirituality and cultures.” But last year, Williams and Adidas were criticized after the release of the “Hu Holi Powder Dye Collection.” Some said they had appropriated aspects of the Holi Festival, an annual Hindu tradition.

During his visit to the Adidas campus, Williams met with Armstrong to discuss inclusivity and sat down with members of Progressive Soles. There, he spoke candidly about his upbringing and why he had signed with Adidas, according to a person who was at the meeting. Then he indicated his desire to use his star power to push Adidas toward greater diversity.

©2019 New York Times News Service

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