Labeling the Soviet Union

OF course the players' jerseys were red. It was the Soviet Union's national basketball team, after all, in the United States this winter to play a series of nationally televised games with US college teams. But wait! What was that on the front of the jerseys, up there high on the left?

A label, it was. ``Adidas,'' it said - ``Adidas,'' the well-known manufacturer of sporting apparel. It was a quite purposely visible mark of a major victory, albeit a woefully unheralded major victory, for the forces of capitalism.

Every time a Soviet player stepped to the foul line for a free throw, as the Soviet players often did, millions of TV viewers were treated to a close-up of that label. It was the finest moment yet for the makers of athletic shoes, jeans, and just about everything else, who have tried so earnestly to turn people into human billboards advertising their wares.

``That's just the way it's done in America,'' as a US swimmer, Chris O'Neill, explained last summer to a Soviet reporter who asked him why the sweat suits worn by O'Neill's teammates at the Goodwill Games in Moscow were plastered with labels advertising the manufacturers of consumer goods which sponsored the US teams.

O'Neill was truly puzzled that the issue was even raised. ``I've never been asked that before,'' the swimmer said.

Despite their Marxist backwardness, the Soviets obviously caught on quickly. I'm not privy to Soviet state secrets, but it must be assumed that the USSR was compensated handsomely by the good West German capitalists who run Adidas.

Certainly they and their competitors don't stint in their payments to US basketball players, tennis and track-and-field stars, baseball and football players, and other domestic athletes who act as their billboards.

The biggest stars get as much as $250,000 a year for trying to persuade us to buy what Adidas and the others pay them to wear. Even relatively unknown athletes, even supposed ``amateurs,'' can pull down at least $10,000 just for wearing particular brands of athletic gear.

Then there are the rest of us who actually buy those running shoes and warm-up suits, the polo shirts and jackets, and pants and sweaters and scarfs and neckties, and even socks with labels on the outside, those T-shirts advertising all manner of things. And pickup trucks with the maker's name scrawled across the tailgate, and beach towels and handbags, and the many, many other similarly labeled goods.

But what next, now that even the Soviet Union has joined in this grand capitalist endeavor?

It may very well be time to take up the suggestion of Lewis H. Lapham, the editor of Harper's Magazine, that members of Congress enliven the TV coverage of their proceedings by donning jump suits decorated with ``the trademarks, decals, and corporate monograms of their sponsors.'' During roll call votes, they could also don baseball caps ``bearing the insignia of the principal lobby or special interest that they stood ready to defend against the ingratitude of the poor.''

Dick Meister is a San Francisco author who wears no labels.

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