Nike’s strange moral universe

Why Joe Paterno is a perfect poster boy for Phil Knight’s sportswear giant

Nike's strange moral universe

Zumapress/Keystone Press

Nike founder and professional provocateur Phil Knight gave an Oscar-worthy performance at Joe Paterno’s massive memorial last week, admonishing university officials for allegedly disgracing the late, great football coach (the winningest in Penn State history) before his death on Jan. 22. Paterno, who passed away from lung cancer at 85, was ousted from his near-half-century post as Penn State’s football coach in November, for his lacklustre response to the sexual abuse accusations made against his long-time assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky—now regarded as likely a career pedophile (he has since been accused of molesting several other children on Penn State’s campus). When now-assistant coach Mike McQueary tried to alert Paterno to that probability in 2002 (McQueary says he saw Sandusky raping a boy in the Penn State showers), Paterno informed his superiors, who, in turn, informed nobody else. Paterno, apparently thinking he had done enough, let the matter lie, effectively turning a blind eye to his colleague’s behaviour. In short, he obeyed the technical letter of the law, but seriously abused its spirit.

This is something Nike—under the aegis of its founder and chairman—has been doing for years, which makes Knight’s apologia at Paterno’s memorial all the more perversely appropriate. It’s no secret, for example, that Knight’s shoe empire has enraged labour rights groups across the globe for its maltreatment of workers and violation of child labour laws. But Knight has consistently maintained that what appear to be Nike’s ethical violations actually belong to someone else. As one anti-Nike blog puts it, Knight “claimed that the employees who were exploited weren’t officially ‘Nike’s employees,’ but were instead employees of other businesses contracted to source Nike’s shoes.” This is almost exactly the same rationale Knight extended to Paterno’s actions in his memorial speech, when he proclaimed before a packed auditorium at Penn State that the coach “gave full disclosure to his superiors” and “if there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation and not in Joe Paterno.” But the villain in the tragedy is neither the “investigation” nor Joe Paterno. The villain is Jerry Sandusky. What Knight misses in his blanket defence of Paterno is Edmund Burke’s dictum: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Or that good men do less than they should. It isn’t only bad guys who are capable of doing bad things.

It’s moral gymnastics like this that make it easier to understand Nike’s insistence on continuing to endorse scandal-prone celebrity athletes even at their most scandalous moments, mistaking stubbornness for loyalty. Tiger Woods’s serial adultery, for example, lost Nike shareholders millions of dollars in 2009, yet the company remained one of the only brand giants to endorse him in his time of shame. And why not? When the company is morally addled itself, it would almost seem dishonest not to endorse screw-ups. How, after all, can we expect corporations to drop athletes and stars on ethics violations when the corporations’ own violations far outweigh those of their athletes? And why are we surprised when corporations promote charitable causes popular in the West (women’s health, child obesity) while violating such rights in the East? Nike runs ads about empowering North American women whose sports bras are made en masse by underpaid and overworked Vietnamese women.

But back to Joe Paterno. His sin is entirely different than Woods’s. Paterno is guilty of reacting too quietly to something morally repugnant, which is exactly what Nike has been doing for decades. So it makes perfect sense that Knight would jump on the Paterno pity wagon. In every way possible, the nature of Paterno’s sin makes him the best poster boy Nike could ever have.

In the end, the misstep most devastating to Paterno’s legacy wasn’t his failure to do more about Sandusky in 2002, but his failure to own up to the magnitude of his mistake in 2011. Some of Paterno’s former players have remarked that their coach died with a broken heart. He didn’t have to. He could have died a hero, if only he had been willing to make an object lesson of himself. If he had, he wouldn’t have needed a master apologist to provide his eulogy.

As for that apologist, Knight’s own epitaph could very well be the judgment provided by Mark Madden, a writer for Pennsylvania’s Beaver County Times. “Phil Knight,” wrote Madden, “is a jerk.”

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