by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest Martin Center column probes a major shoe manufacturer’s impact on one West Coast flagship state university.
While money is not the root of all evil, it is undeniably responsible for the transformation of the University of Oregon (UO). It changed from a typical state flagship where athletics were a nice diversion for some students and alums into a sports powerhouse where the quest for glory in football and basketball dominates the school.
The person directly responsible for that is Phil Knight, the founder of the athletic shoe and apparel giant Nike. At a time when the university’s president was desperately looking for outside funding for the school, Knight, an Oregon alum and huge athletics booster, was on hand to help with funds for projects he liked.
Is it a bad thing for an alum to give money? In his recent book University of Nike, author Joshua Hunt shows how Oregon became so hooked on money from Knight that it has allowed athletics to badly distort its priorities. The university’s success on the gridiron and court was crucial to Nike’s business strategy of selling not just shoes, but an entire “dream” package for Americans who were caught up in football and basketball. Once the school started taking Nike money, it simply couldn’t stop.
Hunt’s book is worthwhile—a cautionary tale for college officials to avoid the siren song of corporate money targeted at big sports. Unfortunately, his analysis of the problem is not entirely accurate, and he doesn’t offer any advice to university leaders who might want to keep from becoming another University of Nike.