Nike's Big Gift: Phil Knight and the University of Oregon

Chris Anderson@anderso3Correspondent IIIFebruary 14, 2011

EUGENE, OR - JANUARY 13: Phil Knight, co-founder and Chairman of Nike, Inc., addresses the crowd before the first game between the USC Trojans and the Oregon Ducks basketball teams at Matt Court on January 13, 2011 in Eugene, Oregon. The arena is named Phil Knight's son, Matthew, who died at the age of 34 in a scuba diving accident. (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Nike is one of the most profitable, if not the most profitable, athletic companies in history.

Starting out as a Japanese-funded company, Nike quickly soared to the top of America's clothing and athletic accessories businesses. You are probably even wearing some Nike gear right now.

However, Nike did not begin in Japan. Rather, it began at the University of Oregon, the day Phil Knight arrived on campus.

Hailing from Portland, Oregon, Knight was a journalism major and was also on the Oregon track team and won letters in 1957, '58 and '59. He was coached by Bill Bowerman, one of the most iconic track and now business icons in the history of the United States, and developed a close relationship to him during his time in Eugene.

Knight loved everything about the school. Being a Portland native and Duck fan for most of his life, he was passionate about both his sports and school. 

After graduating from the University of Oregon and after some service duty, Knight graduated from Stanford with an MBA and immediately made a huge impact.

Though I could bore you with some more random background details about Knight and Bowerman and how they secured a deal with a Japanese shoe company to market in the United States, the fact of the matter is that they together founded Nike, Inc. and made it one of the most successful companies in history.

Now, one would think that since both Knight and Bowerman, founders of Nike, attended the University of Oregon, it would be okay for Nike to be a large part of the university. I mean, if you look at other schools, such as Auburn, they have certain athletic lines pegged to their name as well (Under Armour).

However, especially over the past few years, many have grown frustrated with just how much Nike is a part of Oregon. They look at the university and see corruption everywhere: new uniforms every four years, a new basketball arena, a new baseball field and a new academic center for athletes.

For every new thing that Phil Knight does in correlation with the University of Oregon, there are more and more people hopping on the "Let's hate Nike and the University of Oregon" bandwagon.

But is all of this hate actually justified beyond school rivalry hatred (I expect a bunch of Husky and Beaver fans to ridicule this article)?

The simple answer to the question posed above is a resounding no.

For one thing, I would like to share a touching story with you about how much Phil Knight really loves the University of Oregon.

Without a doubt in my mind I am sure that all of you have heard of the new Matthew Knight Arena. It is a state-of-the-art, futuristic arena located in Eugene, Oregon that is essentially a Nike building where the University of Oregon now plays its home basketball games.

I was lucky enough to be there for opening night, and boy, were the pregame ceremonies something to witness. While I had seen Phil Knight at the home football games walking the sideline with other Oregon legends, I never fully understood just how much he loved the university he was a part of and still remains a part of until this day.

Before tip-off, Phil Knight took center stage and gave the capacity crowd a heartfelt talk that touched everybody in the arena.

To the chants of the commonly heard phrase, "Uncle Phil, Uncle Phil!", Knight gave the keynote address of the night. Though you may think that most of his speech was about how much the University of Oregon rocked and how crazy this place was going to be, it was not.

Much of his speech was devoted to recognizing how much his family mattered to him and thanking them for being out there on such a special night. From aunts and uncles to his deceased son Matthew Knight, Phil Knight was trying to illustrate just how much his family and university impacted him in becoming the man he is today.

"I hope the main emotion that carries forward is joy." That is a direct excerpt from Knight's speech on opening night, and it illustrates just how much he does not care about the big money this building will bring it, but how much he wants to see people be happy. Yes, winning is a plus, but Knight wants to see people enjoy the fruits of his labor and enjoy an experience that he has been able to enjoy himself, all because of the University of Oregon.

Matthew Knight Arena is not only a place where the University of Oregon men's basketball team will play in many years to come (80, as hoped by Knight), but it is Phil Knight's final and greatest gift to his son as well.

This arena not only encapsulates the appreciation for the University of Oregon that Knight has, but it is also how he wants to remember his son—by giving joy to a community that has given he and his family so much support throughout his entire life.  

Complain all you want about how involved Nike is with the University of Oregon. There really is nothing ethically wrong with it. Knight is only giving back to his alma mater that has provided him with so much.

It is through private donations that Knight has given Oregon so much, not through Nike's money. Just because he has a bigger pocketbook than most anybody in this nation does not mean that he cannot give however much money he wants to the university he was a part of; to do so would be unethical and hypocritical.

I say hypocritical because, while the University of Oregon does receive a lot of money from Phil Knight, who are its other donors? Yes, there are quite a few successful graduates from the U of O, but nowhere near other universities such as Stanford, Washington, USC, Auburn and the top-tier academic schools where their graduates make millions each year. So why the big deal with the University of Oregon?

It is not right to hate a university because it has donors who realize how much the university has given them throughout their lifetimes and want to see their alma mater succeed even more in the future. Phil Knight and Nike have helped Oregon to do this.

For many years, the University of Oregon was the laughingstock of the Pac-10. Year after year us Duck fans had to watch as our teams sat at the bottom of the Pac. However, Phil Knight wanted to change this. He wanted his university to succeed on a national level, and his private donations have helped the U of O achieve top-tier national status not only athletically, but academically as well.

Yes, the University of Oregon gets new uniforms every four years, but that is part of the excitement at the university and part of the tradition now just as much as any other tradition at other schools that draws excitement from around the campus. It is part of a history now that Knight wants to see continue, and so he, through the company he co-founded and currently chairs, makes generous donations to the universities success.

Academically, Knight has greatly helped Oregon as well. He helped to fund their new academic center for athletes, as well as made a large donation to both the library and law school, which is one of the nicest law buildings in the nation. He also makes considerable donations around the Eugene community and Oregon in general in order to give back to something that has given him so much.

Say what you want about how affiliated Oregon and Nike seem to be, but I believe that it is an altruistic contribution by somebody who is proud of where he came from. If you don't believe that had Knight gone somewhere else he would not be doing the same exact thing he is doing right now, you are very confused and need to reassess your point of view.

I am sorry that Knight had to graduate from Oregon and all of you Duck haters have to see his contributions bring Oregon into the national spotlight. It was the university that he chose to go to, and he now just wants to thank the people who let him become who he is today.

Hate all you want—Phil Knight and the University of Oregon, and successively Nike, are a great pairing and will continue to remain that way (without any NCAA violations, I might add) for a very long time.