Nike's positive imagery promotes civil rights.
I walked into my friend Police Chief Juan Cloy's office in Canton, Miss., to discuss combating racial tensions between the city's African-American and Latino communities, but when he saw my vintage Oregon Ducks cap, first he wanted to trade - his Homeland Security hat for my beat-up green cap with the fading yellow "O." Then we started talking about racism, the Ducks and Phil Knight.
As a former Eugene resident, I've been irritated for years by elitist attitudes about the social value of sports and criticism of Nike co-founder Phil Knight for giving money to the University of Oregon. The carping goes like this: Sports are a low-level pursuit, and sports people are cultural cretins; UO alum Phil Knight is some kind of Darth Vader Duck philanthropist, giving the university too much money and exercising too much control. Endless complaining. Always the same.
So as I handed Chief Cloy my Ducks cap, I started my Nike story, which begins with meeting Jackie Robinson.
As a child of parents who fought against segregation in the 1950s in Brooklyn, I held Robinson (the first African-American major leaguer) and the Brooklyn Dodgers (the team that integrated baseball) as special heroes. When the Dodgers finally beat the Yankees (late-comers to integrated baseball) in the 1955 World Series, the event was much more than a sports moment, it was a political event for American culture.
Few summer camps were integrated then, and Robinson's son Jackie Jr. and I were campers at one of them. Mr. and Mrs. Robinson came on parents' day. I've met some famous people in my life, but shaking the hand of Jackie Robinson is the most memorable encounter.
When he retired from baseball, Robinson became a Republican, much to the dismay of left-wing progressives. But Robinson never danced to expectations - especially those of white liberals. He joined the corporate world as a vice president of Chock-ful-o'Nuts, a famous New York food chain, becoming the first African-American vice president of an American corporation. In sports, politics and business, Robinson was always his own man.
Robinson died long before Phil Knight's Nike Corp. came on the scene. But I think Robinson would have been a natural ally of Knight, a sports figure whose influence on American society transcends sports and defies expectations on the left. When activist filmmaker Michael Moore made "The Big One," Knight was the only corporate head to debate Moore on camera. Knight surely has some of the late Sen. Wayne Morse's independent blood in his veins. And like Robinson, Knight doesn't dance to others' expectations.
Knight rarely gets credit for what I consider his most important contribution to America: Nike's positive portrayals of African- American men and women athletes on television - Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams among them.
Raising black athletes to such high levels of popularity in sports and culture triggered racist responses. Remember the flack generated by the "What would Mike do" slogan about Jordan, or the "she's-too-ghetto-talk" comments around portrayals of Williams?
Nike's media orbit also pulled in Spike Lee, whose films such as "Do the Right Thing," "Malcom X," and "Bamboozled" deal with American racism at a particularly insightful and penetrating historical level.
Call it what you will, but I consider Knight's history with African-American culture part of America's civil rights history.
Perhaps elitists who belittle sports as something unfit for the higher-minded should do a little homework on scholar-athletes such as Paul Robeson, who was valedictorian at Rutgers University, and Robinson, a four-letter man at UCLA.
As for the importance of sports in the world, they should read about Jesse Owens and Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and the black power protests by Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Were it not for the sport of boxing, the world would have never known the name Muhammed Ali, a sports figure who became a political statesman throughout the world.
And what of the coming fight over human rights in the scheduled Games in Moscow? It is folly to suggest that sports are not a worldwide endeavor of great importance and tied to politics at an intrinsic level of culture.
The importance of sports was apparent that day in Mississippi. I wasn't just giving Chief Cloy any old cap. The Oregon "O" spoke for Knight and his history of shaping positive attitudes toward African-Americans. It's an honorable history, and a history people should think about the next time they slip into the same old cranky complaints about Knight.
And Cloy, an African- American policeman and a sports fan, agreed with me: If Jackie Robin son were alive today, he'd be working with Nike and Phil Knight.
Tom Manoff, formerly of Eugene, is an author, composer and journalist living in New York. He also works with the Canton Freedom Museum in Mississippi.
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|Title Annotation:||Guest Viewpoint|
|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Aug 25, 2013|
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