Olympic uniform uproar goes from dumb to dumber

Guest Editorial
This editorial is reprinted from USA Today, where it was first published.

In the annals of public relations, Ralph Lauren’s decision to have the U.S. Olympic team’s opening ceremony uniforms made in China will someday be a case study in what not to do.

For a company that hopes to promote its brand and sell a boatload of the snappy outfits, Ralph Lauren instead managed to anger significant parts of the American public. It takes a particular tone-deafness to national pride to outfit the squad representing the United States in Chinese-made duds, not to mention French-looking berets. Ralph Lauren has admitted as much by saying the 2014 team’s uniforms will be made in the United States.

But, as avoidable a fiasco as this has been for one fashion house and the U.S. Olympic Committee, it is some of the critics who come off now looking even sillier, starting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who went so far as to say that the uniforms should be burned.

Does Reid recall when members of Congress took sledgehammers to Toshiba products on the steps of the Capitol in 1987 in a fit of Japan-bashing that was replayed endlessly overseas? Torching the Olympic uniforms on the eve of the London Summer Games would create about as much international goodwill, and have even less impact on outsourcing jobs.

For decades, Americans, congressional leaders included, have been voting with their pocketbooks in favor of cheap, imported clothing over more expensive domestic wares. This has prompted the majority of textile mills in the United States to close, continuing a process that started when mills from New England and expensive labor markets moved to Southern states, and then overseas.

Countering this trend would be all but impossible. Punitive tariffs on textile imports would have disastrous consequences on the whole economy as other countries retaliated against American-made goods.

True, the U.S. Olympic team has symbolic importance, as do the uniforms it wears. But in a globalized economy, the athletes still will need foreign-made products to compete. That’s why no one is talking about banning imported track shoes, swimsuits or skis.

The good news is that U.S. manufacturing — principally in more sophisticated areas than textiles — is seeing something of a rebound, thanks to low prices for natural gas at home and rising labor costs and increased hassles in places such as China.

If lawmakers wanted to do something more useful than bellyaching about uniforms, they would focus on how to nurture and sustain this encouraging trend. That would truly be an Olympic achievement.