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.”


Nike’s strange moral universe

  1. Although it did catch my attention, this is the most biased article I’ve ever read… Fail.

    • That’s probably because it’s an opinion piece and not a news article… Fail. 

  2. Nike’s Asian labor forces have nothing to do with this.  Neither does Adidas, New Balance, Reebok, or Li Ning – all produced in the same factories and geographical areas (which you failed to mention).

  3. I get that this is an op-ed piece, but you ought to at least try to have some journalistic integrity. Your sources include “one anti-Nike blog” and some biased writer at the Beaver County Times.
    And just what is your source for this claim:
    “Tiger Woods’s serial adultery, for example, lost Nike shareholders millions of dollars in 2009”

    • Yes, let’s defend Phil Knight because he just reiterated what alot of people in North America believe, that being a gifted athlete or coach entitles you to be free of the ethical and moral constraints of ordinary men.  Feel free to rape women the hotel staff where you are staying, bring guns to the locker room, kill your girlfriend if she gets pregnant and says your the father, raise dogs and fight them to the death, have at least 17 mistresses at your beck and call…and by all means don’t feel any need to call 911 if the rape of a child takes place in the locker room shower of the institution where you have been headcoach for 35 years.   Oh, gee….I think we can stretch rules out to apply them to celebrity CEO’s of sporting goods equipment….. 

      • The best criticism of Joe Paterno that you can come up with is that he failed to call 911? Really? Setting aside the fact that 911 calls are typically done at the time of the crisis, and not after (in this instance) a subsequent conversation at Paterno’s home, you and countless others looking for a scapegoat continue to ignore the fact that Paterno did in fact follow up. By his own admission, he could have done more. But, in yet another instance of a poorly-researched op-ed piece, the author indicates that Paterno died of a broken heart, when his son specifically refuted that claim. Phil Knight voiced the opinion of many, including me. Do I wish Paterno would have done more? Of course. But I also know first hand the significant force for good that he was. And I am sick of people like you and this author attempting to eviscerate his incredible legacy as a result of this one tragic episode. Unless you have never done anything that you later regretted, then perhaps you should simply keep your mouth shut.

        • I don’t care if Paterno called 911 or looked in the phone book and called the non-emergency number for the police but if you believe that the ongoing rapes of little boys isn’t a crisis then you will never GET IT.  The day McQuery and his father arrived at Paterno’s house and reported the crime to him, he should have called police and handed the phone to McQuerry.  Then he should have called the athletic director.  The welfare of a child should come before a game and who should know that better then a man with an “incredible legacy” as a coach of young men. 
          Before you tell me to mind my own business ask yourself how many boys lives were ruined because adults like Joe Paterno cared more about a game than they did about little children.  Do you even wonder how many of those boys commited suicide because of their experience with Sandusky or how many are addicted to drugs or alcohol?  Why don’t you ask Theo Fluery or Sheldon Kennedy how it feels when “heroes” like Joe Paterno know that boys are being sexually molested and don’t do EVERYTHING within their power to stop it from happening.  I won’t keep my mouth shut because I am a psychiatric nurse and part of my job is to counsel people whose lives have been shattered by childhood abuse.  In Canada, Joe Paterno would be arrested because we have laws forcing people to contact authorities (not the athletic director) if a child is being abused.
          If Joe Paterno did “in fact follow up” as you are suggesting, why didn’t he ask himself….when are the cops coming to take away Sandusky?  No, he didn’t.  He turned a blind eye for 10 years…..10 years….not ONE TRAGIC EPISODE….many ruined lives!

          • You really are off the deep end.

            The concept that Paterno did wrong because he “did not go to the police”
            is based upon the idea that the police chief would have launched an investigation absolutely whereas Schultz would not
            have absolutely. We cannot know this. Harmon, the then chief of police,
            may have interviewed McQueary and decided not to launch an
            investigation as well. The police,chief, just like Schultz, has  discretion as
            to whether to investigate or not. That Paterno would have known who was
            better, Schultz or Harmon, to report McQuearys story to is ridiculous –
            we can’t say that even now. Paterno, without any reason to suspect it
            was inferior to do so, simply followed the law and would have assumed it
            was written the way it was for some reason, not just arbitrarily. Many times the police have “dropped the ball”. Some feel reporting to the police commissioner is a better choice. It seems those who designed the Pa. Laws felt this to
            be true.

             The key lies in requiring a
            mandatory investigation NOT just mandatory reporting to all allegations by either the Police Commissioner or Police Chief. This crime WAS
            reported. You keep trying to say Paterno did not report the
            crime or call the police as if THAT was the solution to this failure. How many have reported a crime to the police only to have an
            unsatisfying result? 

            In spite of The Second Mile dropping the ball and allowing assaults to continue on nonPSU property and covering up this crime there were no assults at PSU after the one was reported to adminsitration in 2002.  At least THEY did something whereas the “Save the Children” types working at The Seocnd Mile did nothing.  They were more worried about keeping their funding so they needed to cover the crime.

            In spite of all your beliefs othewise Theo Fluery or Sheldon Kennedy have not gone to State College and killed Sandusky.  They ALSO obey the law even if it means more abuse could continue.  The “save the children” types in the Pa Department of Public Welfare and Centre County Child Protection Services did NOT whisper what they knew about Sandsuky from the 1998 report to the Second Mile workers even though they knew Sandusky was working closely with children there.  They feared a law suite for slander so they let it drop.  They did not write editorials to the newspaper telling what they knew about Sandusky either irregardless of a possible libel suit because they would do EVERYTHING within their power to stop him – they didn’t take any risks either.  None of these types goes beyond the law like they expected Paterno to do.  Paterno had plenty of older aged responsibilites to tend to – why didn’t the State agencies and The Second Mile whose employees are PAID to look out for the children doing their basic jobs yet alone going beyond it?

  4. Paterno’s response was no different than what all the “stop abuse” morally-outraged types did. In 1998 all the social workers at the Centre County Child
    Protection and the Pa Department of Public Welfare knew about
    as much as Paterno did concerning an allegation. Despite all their best
    intentions, desire to help, well meaning empathy for the innocent children and vehement commitment to their cause – none of
    these types went beyond the bare minimum required legally with the
    knowledge they had of Sandusky’s behavior. I would have thought that the idea that Sandusky was working with children as much as he did would have set off a million
    red-flags to the “save the children” types who knew what he did in 1998. I would have thought they would have gone
    BEYOND the law and whispered to the social workers and volunteers at The
    Second Mile to “watch Sandusky, don’t let him be alone with a child
    because he….”… but they didn’t. I would have thought that along with
    their passionate cause to “stop child abuse” they would have gone beyond
    the law and checked up on Sandusky often even after the charges were dropped, with the knowledge their positions
    within the child abuse system allowed them access to, or watched him, on
    their own AFTER they clocked out at 5:00 knowing what they knew….
    but they didn’t. I would have thought they would have teamed up with
    the mother and son from the 1998 allegation and draw attention to
    the injustice that mother encountered, and possible safety issues the Second Mile could be facing by
    telling the story more, just to protect others from the same fate – in spite of the possible
    “defamation of character” lawsuit it might have drawn… afterall it is
    all about “the children”.

    Unfortunately none of those who say that Paterno should have gone beyond the law and “done more” did so when given the same opportunity to do so with the knowledge they
    had. Whatever excuses they made for themselves for NOT going beyond the law  and “doing more” are somehow “different” and cannot be used to justify Paterno’s following the law only. Yet Paterno went beyond the law
    MANY times in his life, for so many, that most of us will never even come close to doing.  How society has changed – we used to judge others gently and be hard on ourselves.  Now we judge others harshly (selectively of course), and are so easy on ourselves.

    • So because others didn’t protect children who were raped by Sandusky, Joe Paterno is off the hook for not calling police?  Your arguing that no one else did so why should he?  You are very right about the 1998 “allegations” regarding Sandusky and a child in a shower….didn’t those allegations lead to Joe Paterno telling Sandusky that he would never replace Joe as head coach and Sandusky retiring from Penn State?  So you see Joe Paterno knew all about Sandusky’s “fascination” with little boys.  That’s what makes his inaction a few years later when he learned of a new eye witness account of Sandusky raping a 10 year old in shower so much more incredible.  Why did no one pick up the phone and call 911….Paterno included?  There is only one answer…they wanted to save the reputation of the precious Penn State football program.  That was more important than saving children. 

      • You have nothing but conspiracy theory as to why Sandusky retired in 1999.  No facts at all.  More likely, as a pedophile, Sandusky wanted to be around the kiddies, that is, spend more time “helping” at the Second Mile.  Paterno was dissatisfied with Sandusky because he was spending too much time at the Second Mile.  There had been friction between them for a  long time.

        A rape was never reported to Paterno by McQuearys own testimony on Dec 16, 2011

        Nobody called 911 because there was no victim by Saturday morning.  To find any victim would require an investigation.  Paterno followed the Pa Laws for reporting suspected sexual abuse of minors.  He followed the laws assuming they were written in the best interests of the victims, and not just indiscriminately.  He notifed the Police Commissioner  (Schultz) who, like a policeman, has authority to launch an investigation.  Not everyone is as enamored of the service they receive from the police and would prefer a commissioner.  It seems whoever wrote the laws thought so.  The Pa. Laws require Paterno to report exactly as he did.

        Penn State football was not at risk from a retired football coach being exposed as a pedophile.  Nobody would stop going to games upon this discovery.  Shock – yes, cash in the season tickets – no.  Strong, powerful PSU football players do not have to worry about being raped by 55 yo men either.  Football was not threatened.

        Jerry Sandusky was the founder, main fund raiser, PR man, case worker and face of the Second Mile, his childrens charity and from which he plucked boys for sex.  A pedophile at a children’s organization is a death blow.  THEY covered up his behavior and allegations to keep the donations and grants coming in to “save the children”.  You are ridiculously misinformed.

        • maryh3, you are delusional..You do not need a victim to contact police and report a crime.  McQuery was a witness to the crime of sodomy of a child.  Sandusky could have been hauled in and questioned.  The staff at the Second Mile could have been called and they would have reported who Sandusky had taken to Penn State that day.  According to the article I read, he had permission to bring kids from his charity to the campus and show them around the football facility.
          Further, according to the grand jury testimony, Joe Paterno never said he contacted the police commissioner.  Rather, he said he phoned the athletic directors and send McQuery and his father to them.
          I never said that there was EVER concern that Sandusky was going to rape a college football player but Paterno had his own stellar reputation to preserve.  It wouldn’t look good if people found out he had an assistant coach who he hired who was a  pedophile and that person raped a child in the shower on the campus.
          As for your “conspiracy theory” allegation, it isn’t my conspiracy theory. I read it on CNN.  It came out of the grand jury investigation that the mother of the child that Sandusky “horsed around with” in the shower told police what happened.  They approached Paterno.  After that Sandusky retired.  The article on CNN said Paterno had told Sandusky he would not ever replace him as headcoach.  I have no idea where the author got the information.  I will ask you something though, why do you think McQuery didn’t get fired and Paterno did?  Neither one called the police at the time.  Maybe McQuery found a conscience at some point and did call police while Joe never did.

          • You seem to be incorrect. Paterno said he was not told of the 1998 investigation, and the head of the University Police said they did not tell Paterno.

            If Paterno knew Sandusky molested boys in the campus showers in 1998, he would have made sure Sandusky did not get emeritus status and keys to those campus showers in 1999.

            McQueary didn’t get fired because he is a whistle blower in the perjury case against Curley and Schultz. Whistle blowers cannot be fired when they are a star witness for the Attorney General.

            In his final interview, Paterno said he told Sandusky he would not be head coach because he spent too much time on Second Mile. A boy in the Grand Jury report testified that Sandusky was very upset when he learned he would not become the next head coach.

            It was logical for Sandusky to retire rather than continue to help someone who he felt betrayed him. He also avoided the embarrassment of being passed over for head coach if Paterno did retire. He got a good retirement deal, and was able to spend more time on Second Mile.

          • You are the delusional one.  The crime WAS reported as per Pa Law by Paterno, Curley and Schultz.  The law REQUIRES reporting to Curley and then to Schults who was the Police Commisioner.  Anyone, the police commissioner or the chief of police make a decision of whether to launch and investigation.  To ASSUME the laws which require reporting to the police commissioner are inferior to reporting to the police is just an excuse you want to use to blame Paterno.  He follwed the same laws that are necessary if those laws are used to remove Sandusky from society.

            Schultz and Curley reported it to The Second Mile because that is the entity that would have the information necessary to file a report with Social Services.

            The Second Mile WAS called and the incident was reported to them along with a threat to keep Second Mile kids away from PSU and Sandusky – a RED FLAG to any organization that contacts children.  They had access to records of their clients/victims and the employee/leader was Sandusky.  TSM did NOTHING about this.  They even knew who the victim was if they looked it up.  They didn’t care – CYA was more important than the boy.  A pedophile at a charity that serves children and which relies on donations and State funds guarantees its destruction. They did not report it is CYS or DPW as required by law for the agencies that have contact with children (unlike PSU).

            It is the failure of The Second Mile who had a pedophile pluck children for sex from within their midst for years and never had a policy to detect or prevent this.  It is the failure of The Second Mile that was informed of allegations against Sandusky in 1998 and 2002 that ignored them and covered for Sandusky so he could continue raising funds for them using his ex-PSU coaching image.  It was the Second Mile who foolishly thought they could continue to use Sandusky to raise funds and simply deny him access to children after 2002 who failed to realize he would just go outside them for a new supply of victims (coaching at a distant high school).  It is the Second Mile who paid off the prosecutor Corbett (now governor) in campaign contributions to delay any prosecution (and could have paid off Ray Gricar as well) of Sandusky knowing it could not survive if its founder, PR man, fund raiser, Trustee, case worker, and public face was a pedophile using the charity to obtain children for sex.

            Paterno, football.. yeah right.  I’ve got land to sell you.

            Pa Laws for reporting suspected sexual abuse:


  5. Is this you, Reebok?

  6. Knight should have blamed the PA Attorney General for Paterno’s firing.

    The AG  recklessly indicted Sandusky for the 2002 incident witnessed by
    McQueary without even knowing the identity of the alleged victim. If
    that victim eventually testifies that it was not a sexual assault, she
    will have damaged the integrity or her office, damaged all the other
    cases against Sandusky and ruined the reputations of Paterno and Penn
    State for nothing.

    The AG greatly exaggerated McQueary’s testimony in the Grand Jury
    report, saying that he saw “anal intercourse” and reported that to
    Paterno. McQueary testified at the Curley/Schultz preliminary hearing in
    Dec.that he never used those words or rape or anal, and used no graphic
    language when he talked to Paterno. McQueary testified that he saw no
    sexual contact, just a naked Sandusky standing behind a naked boy with
    his arms around the boy’s waist. He only suspected sexual contact of
    some sort.

    The AG hid exculpatory evidence by omitting Dr. Dranov from the Grand
    Jury report. Dranov talked to McQueary before he phoned Paterno. Dranov
    asked McQueary 3 times if he saw anything sexual, and 3 times McQueary
    said no.

    • Add the governor Corbett to the list.  He refuses to investigate The Second Mile – the agency full of trained social workers and childhood experts who allowed Sandsuky to snatch boys from within their midst for sex right as they were “saving the children”.  Perhaps all those campaign contributions, grants, and bribes to look the other way when Corbett was DA paid off.

  7. Blah blah blah, all these long long posts defending Paterno. He didn’t call the cops, plain and simple, end of story. That’s inexcusable. Also McQuery and the higher-ups, inexcusable behaviour as well. The lot of them should be ashamed. 

    • As if calling the cops would have ended this.  You have a lot of faith in cops, like in 1998 when the cops were informed about an alleged assault, them watched Sandusky bring boys into the showers until 2002.  Assaults in 2000 (janitors) and 2002 (McQueary) right under the cops (who knew) noses.  In 2002 it gets reported as specified in Pa Law up to the Police Commissioner and the assaults stop.  Who stopped the assaults again?

      •  So, because the cops didn’t act on an alleged assault earlier, they shouldn’t have been informed about an *actual* assault that was *eye-witnesssed*? Sooooo desperate, please try harder. 

        • Please try harder to convince yourself that reporting exactly as required by Pa Laws is “covering up” a crime?  Desperation tactics because your types wrote the laws that failed.

          The fact the Police FAILED in 1998 is ONLY an indication that your laws can fail no matter which direction was chosen – to ASSume the choice to report to the Police Commissioner verses the Police Chief does not indicate anything though you desperately WANT to view it as an intentional cover-up.

          Face it all you lefties FAILED.  You “felt their pain” so we gave you power, money, authority, Govt agencies, Laws etc and you still FAILED.  The Second “save the children” Mile filled with your types abused your clinets and let it continue – your falied policies allowed this happen.  It’s too bad when those who are “saving the children from abuse” were the ones abusing. 

  8. Saying Paterno failed “to own up to the magnitude of his mistake in 2011” is grossly inaccurate.

    Paterno regretted doing more and said “This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”I haven’t heard anyone else, most far more culpable, express any regrets, including McQueary, his father, Dr. Dranov, Curley, Schultz and Spanier from 2002; the DA’s office, PA Dept. of Public Welfare, Second Mile, University Police, State College Police and county child protective services from 1998; the PSU janitors from 2000 and the high school teachers who found Sandusky’s behavior around boys suspicious but failed to report it in ~2007-08.

  9. A “twofer” attack on masculine norms, dripping with androphobia.  Boooooooring.

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