Nike's Positive Imagery Promotes Civil Rights

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), August 25, 2013 | Go to article overview

Nike's Positive Imagery Promotes Civil Rights


Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Tom Manoff

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. …

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