The Final Insult: Nike CEO Phil Knight Eulogizes Joe Paterno

Phil Knight, the founder and Chairman of Nike, has emerged following the death of Joe Paterno as the late Penn State coach’s great defender. At a packed, televised memorial service, Knight eulogized Paterno and went on the attack against the media and Board of Trustees, firmly defending Joe Paterno's actions, or inactions, after learning that his assistant coach Jerry Sandusky may have been a child rapist.

"In the year in question he gave full disclosure to his superiors up the chain to head of campus police and president of the school. The matter was in the hands of a world class university and by a president with an outstanding national reputation. Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me. There was a villain in this tragedy it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response to it. [ applause ] and yet, for his actions, he was excoriated by the media and fired over the telephone by his university. Yet in all his subsequent appearances in the press, on TV, interacting with students, conversing with hospital personnel, giving interviews, he never complained, he never lashed out. Every word, every bit of body language conveyed a single message. ‘We are Penn State.’"

The crowd went wild. Knight has also received praise in the evil media for his strong words. Jena McGregor, a columnist for the Washington Post wrote a piece titled, “At Joe Paterno memorial service, Phil Knight shows true leadership.” This is true, But it’s leadership right off a cliff and into the kind of moral abyss Coach Paterno rejected with his last public interview.

By Paterno’s own tragic words, he “didn’t know which way to go” and said that he wished he'd done more upon hearing the allegations against Sandusky. We can, I believe, understand that. We can understand how hearing that your dear friend of decades was some kind of monster could produce confusion. We can understand why Paterno would only tell the campus authorities who you believe have "more expertise" in handling these matters. We can understand saying nothing over the years, perhaps assuming the matter was taken care of, as you see the accused rapist walk into your office, or arrive on your sideline holding a small child by the hand, or using the very showers where someone witnessed the rape of a 10 year old boy. We can understand how a person could think, “I told the campus police. I did what I legally had to do. And now I don’t want to think about this ever again.” We can understand it, but that doesn’t mean we have to excuse it.

The celebration of Knight’s message by Jena MacGregor and the attendees is another example why so much of the country looks at Happy Valley, Pennsylvania like some kind of moral Bizarro World. It also drowns out the thousands of Penn State students who held vigils on campus against child abuse or the Penn State alums “sickened” by both the allegations against Sandusky as well as the response by those alumni and students who see Paterno, and by extension themselves, as the real victims in this saga. 

What Phil Knight and those attracted to his brand of rhetoric don’t understand is that it’s not "the media" that enraged people against Joe Paterno and Penn State. It’s the fact that we’re human beings and the thought of a respected member of the community raping children makes all of us feel vulnerable in a very primal way. Maybe we were abused. Or maybe we know someone who was abused. Or maybe we have children and drop them off everyday with seemingly caring adults with whom we trust with their care. The unspoken thought, that there is a Sandusky in every town collecting damaged childhoods like Hummel figurines, is terrifying. The idea that someone –anyone – could have stopped Sandusky and didn’t because they wanted to protect a University brand, is infuriating. The belief that Joe Paterno, an avatar of moral righteousness, did the “bare minimum” in the face of this, is for many a mark on his character so dark, it shades decades of good works. I am personally far more sympathetic than that. But that sympathy starts by understanding that Joe Paterno was a football coach and a tenured professor, not a saint. He was fallible. He was right that he “should have done more.” He also sure as hell isn’t the only person who should say that.

The presence of Phil Knight in particular as a defender, does Paterno an awful disservice. In Knight, we have someone whose company, despite efforts at reform, is still being flagged for using child labor under abusive sweatshop conditions. Much of this is subcontracted so Knight can feign ignorance, but that’s a legal loophole not a moral one. Think about children as young as four or five years old in Pakistan on the assembly line. Think about a company that builds factories in authoritarian regimes so anyone who talks worker’s rights, let alone union, would face harrowing consequences. Or just Google “Nike, and Child Labor” and prepare to be assaulted with information of industrialized abuse. Given the gravity of these conditions, I have no problem writing that Jerry Sandusky, if guilty of every charge, would have to live 100 lives to ruin the number of childhoods emblemized by the Nike swoosh.

In Knight, we also have someone who pays college coaches a fortune so "student-athletes" can wear and by extension advertise their products. We have someone who ploughs millions to the University of Oregon football program funding state of the art equipment and facilities, while the school endures terrible cuts. We have someone who I would argue represents the corrupting of amateur sports and by extension the corrupting of Joe Paterno and Penn State. By defending Paterno, Knight is doing little more than defending himself and the kind of moral relativism he’s brought to campuses around the country.

I’m in no kind of position to pass judgment on what Joe Paterno and his memory “deserves” for his actions or inactions. But I know he deserves far better than to be defended by Phil Knight. It will stand for me as the final insult to Coach Paterno's good name.

[Dave Zirin is the author of “The John Carlos Story” (Haymarket) and just made the new documentary “Not Just a Game.” Receive his column every week by emailing Contact him at]

12 Reader Comments | Add a comment

lay off

I'm a big DZ fan but I rarely comment. DZ let it go! Piling on is one thing but double piling? Come on man. Never been a JP fan (I didn’t like the basic uniforms and the holier than thou attitude) but I am very sensitive to those accused of crimes they did not commit. JP didn't attack those boys and from all accounts didn't cover it up. Seems to me the media seized an opportunity to eviscerate a wounded coach because of the things he didn’t do. It’s an easy target and a sensational story.

My community has launched a “no snitching” campaign because witnesses of rape, murder and assault are not coming forward. They refuse to do even the bare minimum. To persecute JP as the main perpetrator of these crimes is an injustice. There is enough blame for all and he is getting more than his share. There are others closer to the crimes that knew more and did nothing. Maybe journalist should turn focus from the easy target and widen there criticism.

This article isn't about Paterno again...'s about Phil Knight, so Wes Ny Ross, you just lay off or address the topic at hand.

The topic at hand

I have read a lot about Phil Knight. I know who he is and I know about Nike’s oppression in third world nations. I protest it vehemently. All that I said is I agreeing with him on this topic. He is right, Joe is not the culprit. DZ is right to call Phil Knight on his record. Just saying he goes overboard on JP.

Joe P -bureaucrat

Paterno was built up to be a hero - so people expect more of him. As long as he was in control, he could be generous and big hearted - on his own terms. See the Rick Reilly story about the time he put in on a paralyzed player. He was a good man as long as he was the authority, as long as he was the giver. Suddenly, he was not in control, not in the position to be BIg Hearted Joe.
He responded not like a hero but like a bureaucrat. Can we criticize that? Sure. Where are all the stories about the young men whose lives were warped by Joe's sudden moral paralysis? Do the Phil Knights of this world care? Not really. (Knight reminds me of Steve Jobs - a man who made a fortune and reputation on the backs of children. At least Joe is not in their league.) Surely, Joe is not the only one who is to blame here, but he is the only "hero," the only "great man."

It is BizarroWorld

Thanks for the reminder about Phil Knight/Nike. It's like opening a canned nuke (lid being the trigger) when confronting stuff like this and the so-called Joe-Pa fiasco.

Wow, America Just Doesn`t Get It

Underpaid, often underage, labor is something organized labor fought long and hard to get rid of. That huge gain for human rights has been rolled back , and an exploiting scumbag like Knight can openly flaunt the law in pursuit of his unearned fortune. The lives of Indonesian child laborers are as value able as the lives of Sandusky`s children.

Outrageous behavior

Mr. Knight,

Instead of Just Do it you just DID IT!!

Do you have children and grandchildren? If you do you need to drop to your knees that they never EVER are approached by a creep like Joe Paterno.

Keep your eyes open for what is really going on to our children. Try being a real leader not a financial out of touch snob.

Outrageous behavior

Mr. Knight,

Instead of Just Do it you just DID IT!!

Do you have children and grandchildren? If you do you need to drop to your knees that they never EVER are approached by a creep like Joe Paterno.

Keep your eyes open for what is really going on to our children. Try being a real leader not a financial out of touch snob.

Perfect Example of the Sports One Percent!

This article wasn't about JP, it was about Mr. Phil and the holy Nike brand. PK is simply shilling for and 'protecting his brand'. It is what capitalists do. He doesn't give a f&$k about 'the kids', unless they are his! He only want to justify his ongoing exploitation and business practices that have become the standard for Americas 'captains of industry'!


Sometimes, I start to think that monsters have some kind of secret power;as they always seem to be in leadership positions.

Nike shoes will never touch my feet!


What happened to letting a jury tell if a man is guilty or not. This whole thing is been of scap goating. What about the fact that JP graduated students. Guilty in the media of public trial is not right. To many times people are guilty first without proof

Uncle Phil

I'm an Oregon Duck fan, and I'm appalled by Uncle Phil's pandering. Obviously, college coaches & sports depts are a big part of Uncle Phil's Nike customer base, so he's showing he'll strike back on behalf of his customers. Given Nike's use of near-slave labor in Asa, we shouldn't be surprised. Another tacky thing he did this year was bring in Nike model bitches like LeBron James & Chris Paul to stand on the sidelines in Ducks' games against USC. Jinx -- Ducks were upset, losing first time at home in a few years, and were potentially knocked out of the title game.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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