PA Lobbying – Time for a radical change

Co-operating with corporations for health promotion is problematic, despite it being a practice endorsed by the World Health Organisation. While no stranger to criticism, Coca Cola is now trying is limit the damage from this latest New York Times investigation. The Times exposes some more links between corporations and health scientists. The accompanying video is also compelling viewing. One does not need to be a critical researcher to appreciate how the repetition of “balance” in the video appears somehow … unbalanced.

It reminds me of another example of how a corporation has ingratiated itself within academia (and how academics have ingratiated themselves with corporations). In 2013, the Journal of Physical Activity and Health published an article about the wide-ranging benefits of physical activity (Bailey et al, 289). The article proposed the Human Capital Model, which theorises that physical activity can contribute to various forms of capital for an individual, including emotional, financial, individual, intellectual, physical, and social capitals. The article is “aspirational”, though it is also troubling. The “Human Capital Model” was not produced by the authors of the article, but by Nike Inc. Why is Nike, a global sportswear company, interested in publishing a theoretical model in an academic journal? The Acknowledgements section in the article suggest how the model came to be: “In 2010 NIKE, Inc. developed the Human Capital Model, informed by more than 500 pieces of published research, and initiated a multidisciplinary input and validation process with a pool of experts.” (p. 302) Nike also holds the copyright to all the models and figures in the article including Figure 4, below, which claims that Financial Capital is “reliant on the other Capitals” (p. 301): Nike Figure 1: Reproduced from Bailey et al., 2013, p. 301.

The flow chart above contains many very troubling assumptions. First, there are surely many people around the world who have high levels of financial capital without having a significant amount of physical, emotional, individual, intellectual or social capital. Even a cursory analysis of one’s own social network and community (or personal introspection!) might provide examples to show the fallacy that financial capital is “reliant on all the other capitals”.

Second, it is readily apparent that many forms of capital depend on possessing or being born into families with financial capital to begin with. At least in Western neoliberal societies anyway. We are all born into already-constituted communities. The advantages and privileges afforded by having access to financial capital are clear.

Third, the elevation of financial capital to the pinnacle of the figure implies that money is the desired outcome to be attained. Framing financial capital as the outcome of various forms of capital is perhaps the most overt display of Western neo-liberal thinking articulated in a scholarly journal on physical activity to date. Possessing any or all of the forms of capital in the model is simply a way of acquiring something else – money. Of course, Nike is obligated to make a profit for its shareholders, but we need to recall what a singular focus on increasing financial capital can lead to. In 2005, Nike’s own report of the factories that made its shoes and clothing admitted “excessively long work weeks, wrong wage calculations, verbal abuse, curbs on toilet visits” and a pervasive culture of exploitation. Nike’s admission of worker abuses occurring shows how those with financial capital can exploit those without.

Fourth, nowhere in the article is any evidence provided for the claim: “Financial capital: reliant on the other Capitals.” Should we expect higher standards from a publication in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health?

Fifth, to whom do the authors encourage this financial capital to belong? Bailey et al emphasise individual financial capital accumulation by “highlight[ing] the ways in which engagement in physical activity can act as an asset that enhances career and financial success” (p. 301). I ask, is the accumulation of financial capital a worthy goal, especially when there are such stark differences in the current global distribution of wealth?

Coca Cola, like Nike, must not only make profit, but must continually try to grow profits. Physical activity researchers must give more critical attention to these corporate imperatives, and be prepared to reject their advances despite the lure of magnificent increases in personal financial capital! Perhaps the shame of being compared to “big tobacco” apologists might encourage others to reflect on their associations with “big sugar”. I encourage you to read this incisive account of Coke at the world’s largest physical activity conference in 2014. We will wait and see if ISPAH 2016 continues to be sponsored by Coca Cola. Popular rhetoric about PA promotion calls for radical change and revolution. I end this post by calling for a radical rethinking of corporate linkages.  Watch this space – literally! Joe Piggin

For more, see:

Piggin, J. (2014) Physical activity lobbying: A critical analysis of framing global solutions. Health Education Journal. 74, 1, 16 – 27.

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