Phil Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, has emerged following the death of Joe Paterno as the late Penn State coach’s great defender. At a packed, televised memorial service, Knight eulogized Paterno and went on the attack against the media and Board of Trustees, firmly defending Joe Paterno’s actions, or inactions, after learning that his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky may have been a child rapist.
In the year in question he gave full disclosure to his superiors up the chain to head of campus police and president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me. There was a villain in this tragedy it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it. [ applause ] and yet, for his actions, he was excoriated by the media and fired over the telephone by his university. Yet in all his subsequent appearances in the press, on TV, interacting with students, conversing with hospital personnel, giving interviews, he never complained, he never lashed out. Every word, every bit of body language conveyed a single message. ‘We are Penn State.
The crowd went wild. Knight has also received praise in the evil media for his strong words. Jena McGregor, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote a piece titled, “At Joe Paterno memorial service, Phil Knight shows true leadership.” This is true, But it’s leadership right off a cliff and into the kind of moral abyss Coach Paterno rejected with his last public interview.
By Paterno’s own tragic words, he “didn’t know which way to go” and said that he wished he’d done more upon hearing the allegations against Sandusky. We can, I believe, understand that. We can understand how hearing that your dear friend of decades was some kind of monster could produce confusion. We can understand why Paterno would only tell the campus authorities whom he believed had “more expertise” in handling these matters. We can understand his saying nothing over the years, perhaps assuming the matter was taken care of, as he sees the accused rapist walk into his office, or arrive on his sidelines holding a small child by the hand, or using the very showers where someone witnessed the rape of a 10-year-old boy. We can understand how a person could think, “I told the campus police. I did what I legally had to do. And now I don’t want to think about this ever again.” We can understand it, but that doesn’t mean we have to excuse it.
The celebration of Knight’s message by Jena MacGregor and the attendees is another example why so much of the country looks at Happy Valley, Pennsylvania, like some kind of moral Bizarro World. It also drowns out the thousands of Penn State students who held vigils on campus against child abuse or the Penn State alums “sickened” by both the allegations against Sandusky as well as the response by those alumni and students who see Paterno, and by extension themselves, as the real victims in this saga.
What Phil Knight and those attracted to his brand of rhetoric don’t understand is that it’s not “the media” that enraged people against Joe Paterno and Penn State. It’s the fact that we’re human beings and the thought of a respected member of the community raping children makes all of us feel vulnerable in a very primal way. Maybe we were abused. Or maybe we know someone who was abused. Or maybe we have children and drop them off everyday with seemingly caring adults with whom we trust with their care. The unspoken thought, that there is a Sandusky in every town collecting damaged childhoods like Hummel figurines, is terrifying. The idea that someone—anyone—could have stopped Sandusky and didn’t because they wanted to protect a university brand, is infuriating. The belief that Joe Paterno, an avatar of moral righteousness, did the “bare minimum” in the face of this, is for many a mark on his character so dark, it shades decades of good works. I am personally far more sympathetic than that. But that sympathy starts by understanding that Joe Paterno was a football coach and a tenured professor, not a saint. He was fallible. He was right that he “should have done more.” He also sure as hell isn’t the only person who should say that.
The presence of Phil Knight, in particular, as a defender does Paterno an awful disservice. In Knight, we have someone whose company, despite efforts at reform, is still being flagged for using child labor under abusive sweatshop conditions. Much of this is subcontracted so Knight can feign ignorance, but that’s a legal loophole, not a moral one. Think about children as young as 4 or 5 in Pakistan on the assembly line. Think about a company that builds factories in authoritarian regimes so anyone who talks worker’s rights, let alone union, would face harrowing consequences. Or just Google “Nike, and Child Labor” and prepare to be assaulted with information of industrialized abuse. Given the gravity of these conditions, I have no problem writing that Jerry Sandusky, if guilty of every charge, would have to live 100 lives to ruin the number of childhoods emblemized by the Nike swoosh.
In Knight, we also have someone who pays college coaches a fortune so “student-athletes” can wear and by extension advertise their products. We have someone who ploughs millions to the University of Oregon football program funding state-of-the-art equipment and facilities, while the school endures terrible cuts. We have someone who I would argue represents the corrupting of amateur sports and by extension the corrupting of Joe Paterno and Penn State. By defending Paterno, Knight is doing little more than defending himself and the kind of moral relativism he’s brought to campuses around the country.
I’m in no kind of position to pass judgment on what Joe Paterno and his memory “deserves” for his actions or inactions. But I know he deserves far better than to be defended by Phil Knight. It will stand for me as the final insult to Coach Paterno’s good name.