Oregon Ducks and Phil Knight – Is Nike Giving Them a Recruiting Advantage?

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Oregon Ducks and Phil Knight – Is Nike Giving Them a Recruiting Advantage?
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

With former University of Washington president Mark Emmert taking over the reins of NCAA rules enforcement this fall, and Husky rival University of Oregon playing in the BCS championship, a murky situation is emerging way out in the wild Pacific Northwest.

How can the NCAA slap USC with sanctions when Oregon has a alumni buying spectacular locker rooms and practice facilities for the Ducks? Isn't this far worse than what went on at UW during the early 1990's? How is Oregon's situation different from SMU in the mid 1980's, when the NCAA felt the death penalty was justified?

More importantly, if the NCAA does decide to look into the Oregon matter, howls of protest will erupt from Eugene accusing Emmert of "conflict of interest," since his good buddy (who he hired), Scott Woodward, is still the AD at rival school UW, with a new lengthy contract extension.

But if he doesn't investigate, many will argue that Oregon is routinely doing things more heinous than schools who have had the book thrown at them, since the alumni have brought down more than one institution. 

Either way, it's a mess that is going to get far worse, especially with Oregon now in the BCS championship game. 

Last month nikeblog.com released a statement about a new college basketball arena for the Ducks, including the statement, “Thanks in no small part to counting among its alumni both Nike founder Phil Knight as well as vice president for design and special projects Tinker Hatfield.”

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Missing this week were statements originally in the post, claiming that Nike and UofO go together like “ham on a burger.” Signifying a cozy relationship between a private corporation and a public university that few other institutions enjoy, or ever have enjoyed.

They are indeed interesting statements considering how Nike and Phil Knight has oft been accused by jealous Pac-10 rivals, as being “the best owner in college sports.”

And for good reason. With new football threads being introduced last week as the latest in Oregon’s new tradition of different jerseys and helmets for every game, questions are growing louder about whether a university should be using unpaid college football players as models for new sports gear? 

Do the financial gifts showered upon the athletic department of this formerly sports-hapless institution, signify a recruiting advantage not available to competing universities?

If we go back and study the language of the NCAA, it says point blank that the duty of the NCAA is:  “…to ensure fairness in the recruiting process, the NCAA also seeks to control recruiting excesses. Recent examples include prohibiting college football coaches from arriving at high school football games in helicopters to impress potential recruits and restricting the nature of entertainment during official visits.”

In my recent article What could be done with money spent? , I suggested that Nike may be spending upwards to $1.3 million over what other programs spend on uniforms, each year.  But what about the other "donations" that Phil Knight bequeaths upon the University of Oregon?

Steve Dykes/Getty Images

The DailyEmerald.com reported on July 29, 2009, that Knight donated $100 million for the new Duck basketball arena. 

Last Sunday, Ron Bellamy of The Register-Guard reported that a new six story University of Oregon Football center would be constructed.

To quote the article:  “The L-shaped, stand-alone, six-story structure, which will be “unsurpassed in the country,” according to a UO news release, will be entirely financed by donors Phil and Penny Knight.”

At the heart of the facility is a centralized football operations center that will include nine dedicated football position meeting rooms, two team video theaters, offense and defense strategy rooms as well as a larger conference suite for the entire coaching staff.

The centralized area will be flanked by office and locker facilities for coaches, staff and student-­athletes, the release said.

From the sounds of it, this facility is superior to that of many professional teams. Especially when we hear:

“Additional amenities will include a players’ lounge, a recruiting center to host prospective student-athletes, dedicated areas to accommodate professional scouts, a media interview room as well as an advanced video editing and distribution center.”

Also included in the project are two turf practice fields and an improved grass practice field for the football program.”

Are fantastic locker rooms with flat screen tv’s and six story practice facilities an advantage when it comes to recruiting?  Do we really need to discuss this?

What teams do when recruiting athletes is a huge deal and usually noticed by all.  

For example, when Steve Sarkisian first arrived at UW early in 2009, there was a big huge near-controversy when Jeremiah Tofaeono, a high school lineman from Las Vegas who eventually committed to Utah, claimed that during his recruiting visit to the University of Washington, UW gave him and all the recruits “jerseys with our names on them, and then we ran out onto the field through the tunnel” 

A smoke machine had allegedly been involved too, giving UW a huge recruiting advantage that resulted in this year’s team barely winning half its games after several blow-outs.

Nevertheless there was a big humongous stink made about it, especially when others noted what Jim Moore of the Seattle PI, brought it up in his column in June of 2009.  Moore concluded that the Huskies didn’t actually give out jerseys with their names on them, but he was still ticked off about a perceived advantage the Huskies may have had.

This is how touchy the recruiting process has become.  But perhaps some of this is the lingering effects of what had happened a decade and a half earlier in Seattle, with this same institution? 

Does Phil Knight's donations give Oregon a recruiting advantage?

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In 1992, after National Champ UW beat Sanford for it’s 22nd win in a row, the Seattle Times ran a story that eventually lead to the storied University of Washington steamroller being belted with NCAA sanctions that some say still hinders it's ability to recruit to this very day.

To quote historylink.org:  “The story detailed how UW’s star quarterback Billy Joe Hobert received loans from an Idaho scientist named Charles Rice.  A month later, The Los Angeles Times began its own series of articles, attacking the integrity of the Washington’s football program. Speculation ran wild across America as to whether under Don James, Washington was an outlaw football program.

On August 22, 1993, following a six-month investigation, the Pac-10 Conference put Washington on a two-year bowl probation.  They also docked the Huskies 20 scholarships and $1.4 million in television revenue. 

The punishment was the most severe in conference history.  The Pac-10’s report detailed 24 allegations referencing Hobert, Husky boosters and manipulated expense reports by student hosts. 

But the Pac-10 also stated that “there was no evidence that the University of Washington set out to achieve a competitive advantage” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 273).

The investigation determined that Charles Rice wasn’t a booster, and had no connection to the University of Washington. The Pac-10 did say that although Rice’s loan was inappropriate because it was predicated on Hobert’s projected NFL earnings, it was “inconclusive” whether Husky coaches should have known about its existence. 

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The Pac-10 cited a booster in Southern California for instances of paying Husky players for minimal or non-existent work in a summer jobs program  (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 272).”  But again, the school knew nothing about it nor could they have.

The report listed among the terrible despicable Husky advantages, were huge recruiting advantages like  fruit baskets given to recruits and pretty $2 T-shirts. Compare that to the hundreds of millions in facilities that Knight is funding at Oregon, and it makes the "major violations" at UW seem absurd.

After NCAA hit the Huskies with sanctions, the immediate response most University of Washington fans voiced was the same typical response most fans of winning programs have, when the program is caught with it’s hand in the cookie jar:

“The rest of the Pac10 can’t beat us, so instead they penalized us with trumped-up charges.”

But it wasn’t only Husky fans saying this. Former Washington State coach Jim Walden, a rival of James’s, expressed his thoughts. 

“It’s almost like police brutality that the conference would go beyond the law,” he said.  “They put the death penalty on Don James, one of the most highly respected people in our profession” (Husky Football in the Don James Era, p. 273).

Indeed the same noise can be heard from Southern California today as the reality to the Reggie Bush situation takes hold this month.  Bleacher Report’s own featured reporter BillN, writes in his article  10 Reasons , that the NCAA arrived with a pre-determined outcome long before the evidence was heard, and sites at least nine other reasons why the NCAA and their penalty scheme is blatantly hypocritical.

Harry How/Getty Images

Obviously he is right, since the sole purpose of the NCAA apparatus is to keep amateur athletes unpaid while those they labor for, reap hundreds of millions in profits from television contracts and paid attendance.

Yet when compared to advantages being showered upon the University of Oregon by Phil Knight, the Reggie Bush situation at USC seems fairly minor. How can an institution be zapped with two years of bowl bans and dozens of scholarships lost, when Oregon has one it's alumni's showering millions on the athletic facilities?  How is that fair?!

Meanwhile, Oregon fans mutter about Auburn’s Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. But they too could find themselves in hot water, if the track record of what happens after a program finds success, is repeated in Oregon's case.  Especially when a deep south team is involved, where football takes near-religious priority.

In Eugene, the Ducks and Phil Knight carry on without a worry, announcing astounding new uniforms for the title game while alumni stick out their little Duck chest feathers in pride. 

More spectacular athletic facilities are being built and bragged about, to replace the already-spectacular locker rooms adorned with large high def flat screen tv's.  Recent recruits site the uniforms,  and the stuff, as the main reason they committed to the University of Oregon Ducks. 

Meanwhile the rest of the Pac10, and perhaps the rest of the country, wonder how this cannot be a huge recruiting advantage? It represents a blessing from the NCAA, the same NCAA that many feel unjustly punished USC, UW, SMU, and many other schools over the past four decades.

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