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University of Florida cuts sportswear ties with Russell Athletic

Russell Athletic loses a valuable property in the University of Florida, No. 2 in college sportswear sales.

Getty Images (2005)

Russell Athletic loses a valuable property in the University of Florida, No. 2 in college sportswear sales.

The University of Florida, whose blue-and-orange alligator is one of the most potent brands in college sports, has quietly cut its ties to sportswear maker Russell Athletic.

The decision marks an abrupt reversal. It also puts the Gators among an estimated 50-plus colleges and universities that have recently revoked Russell's license to stitch their logos on its T-shirts.

Gator athletics spokesman Steve McClain confirmed the decision to dump Russell. But university officials, including UF president Bernard Machen, would not discuss why the university changed direction.

The University of South Florida and Florida State University both still have licensing agreements with Russell.

Workers' rights groups contend that in the fall Russell retaliated against workers in Honduras who joined a union by closing their factory. It was the company's only factory anywhere with a union. Russell denies it.

The University of Florida is the No. 2-selling brand in college sports, according to the Collegiate Licensing Co. Only the University of Texas in Austin sells more gear.

"There's no question that when a university as prominent as the University of Florida, with as large a licensing program as the University of Florida, makes a decision like this, it's going to have an impact on how the situation is perceived," said Scott Nova, executive director of the nonprofit Workers Rights Consortium.

The consortium consists of 187 universities nationwide, but not UF. It monitors working conditions at factories where university merchandise is made and tells its members when their fair-labor policies are violated.

Russell has conceded that managers at its Jerzees de Honduras factory made mistakes that interfered with workers' rights to join a union. But it says it closed the factory in October solely because of falling demand for its clothing.

Russell spokeswoman Catherine Gammon said Thursday that the University of Florida has not told the company why the license was revoked.

But she said the company did not close the factory because of the union and is committed to completing a 19-point plan to improve its labor relations.

"We're looking forward … to completing this remediation plan not only to rebuild this business that has been damaged, but also to be a leader in social responsibility," Gammon said.

The University of Florida's termination with Russell took effect April 17. That's less than two weeks after the St. Petersburg Times reported that the private University of Miami was the first institution in the country to revoke Russell's license, while Florida's major public universities were staying with the company.

On its Web site, Russell had touted UF as one of the universities retaining the company.

For Russell, a subsidiary of the Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate led by billionaire Warren Buffett, millions of dollars are at stake. In 2006, Russell said its licenses with about 380 universities were assets worth nearly $16.5 million.

A spokeswoman for USF said this week that the university could revisit their decision after getting a report from the nonprofit Fair Labor Association later this month about Russell's progress on improving its relationships with workers.

The association is sending an independent investigator to Honduras to see whether Russell is taking steps it has promised to improve its relations with workers, USF spokeswoman Vickie Chachere said. The university will look closely at that report.

"There needs to be some evidence that progress is being made," she said.

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

University of Florida cuts sportswear ties with Russell Athletic 06/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, June 5, 2009 10:32am]
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