University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education

University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education

by Joshua Hunt

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The dramatic expose of how the University of Oregon sold its soul to Nike, and what that means for the future of our public institutions and our society.  

**A New York Post Best Book of the Year**

In the mid-1990s, facing severe cuts to its public funding, the University of Oregon—like so many colleges across the country—was desperate for cash. Luckily, the Oregon Ducks’ 1995 Rose Bowl berth caught the attention of the school’s wealthiest alumnus: Nike founder Phil Knight, who was seeking new marketing angles at the collegiate level. And so the University of Nike was born: Knight has so far donated more than half a billion dollars to the school in exchange for high-visibility branding opportunities.

But as journalist Joshua Hunt shows in University of Nike, Oregon has paid dearly for the veneer of financial prosperity and athletic success that has come with this brand partnering.

Hunt uncovers efforts to conceal university records, buried sexual assault allegations against university athletes, and cases of corporate overreach into academics and campus life—all revealing a university being run like a business, with America’s favorite “Shoe Dog” calling the shots. Nike money has shaped everything from Pac-10 television deals to the way the game is played, from the landscape of the campus to the type of student the university hopes to attract.

More alarming still, Hunt finds other schools taking a page from Oregon’s playbook. Never before have our public institutions for research and higher learning been so thoroughly and openly under the sway of private interests, and never before has the blueprint for funding American higher education been more fraught with ethical, legal, and academic dilemmas.

Encompassing more than just sports and the academy, University of Nike is a riveting story of our times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612196923
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 10/23/2018
Sold by: Penguin Random House Publisher Services
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 1,241,580
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Joshua Hunt is a former foreign correspondent for Reuters in Tokyo. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, The California Sunday Magazine, and The Atavist Magazine. He is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he was a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and a recipient of the Lynton Fellowship in Book Writing.

Read an Excerpt

University of Nike

In May 2014, I traveled to Eugene, Oregon, to cover a developing story for The New York Times: two months earlier, a freshman at the University of Oregon had told local police she’d been gang-raped by three of the school’s basketball players. Campus police were aware of the incident just hours after it occurred, and university administrators knew by the following day. But instead of alerting the campus community and suspending the players, they kept the matter quiet and allowed the men to participate in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Throughout March and April, the school’s public relations department worked on a media strategy to employ in case the story broke; school administrators quietly brokered a deal that would allow the accused players to transfer to another institution at the end of the academic year, with no incriminating paperwork that might follow them; and campus police were careful to omit from the school’s public crime log any mention of the report. When May arrived, it looked as though the school had managed to avoid a major scandal. Then the Eugene Police Department released a graphic twenty-four-page police report the victim had filed, sparking intense media coverage that led to the suspension of the players and, several months later, the resignation of the university’s president, Michael Gottfredson.

I was left with a number of nagging questions: Why had the school recruited one of these players despite the fact that his previous college had suspended him for sexually assaulting a fellow student? Why were the players allowed to keep playing basketball with such serious charges hanging over their heads? And why did the school ignore federal laws requiring them to notify the public when crimes of this nature were reported to campus police?

University administrators refused to talk with me, and occasionally locked themselves in their offices until I left the buildings where they worked. The players also refused to talk with me, while their lawyers insisted that the sex had been consensual. The school’s office of public records produced mostly useless, heavily redacted records concerning its handling of the incident, and even the school’s public relations professionals proved to be tight-lipped: before turning down each of my requests for an interview with some administrator or another, the director of public affairs, Tobin Klinger, would always ask me the same question: “What’s your angle?”

And each time I told him I wouldn’t have an angle until my notebook was filled with more answers than questions.

I began to hear troubling stories about the University of Oregon’s relationship with Nike. Over the course of two decades, the shoe and apparel company’s founder, Phil Knight, had become the school’s most generous donor. They called him Uncle Phil, not just on campus but around town, and it was easy to see why—when my parents moved the family away from Eugene, in 1995, it was a quiet college town filled with young hippies and former millworkers. Nearly two decades later, it was Niketown, U.S.A.

The University of Oregon, which was once a cash-strapped liberal arts college, had been transformed into a college football powerhouse with an increasingly competitive basketball program. The change was so swift and dramatic, and so obviously tied to Knight’s largesse, that Oregon’s rivals gave it the derisive nickname the University of Nike—an image it has now embraced. Other schools are embracing that kind of image as well: in 2016, the University of Michigan announced a $169 million contract with Nike, which was the biggest in the history of college sports, until the University of Texas at Austin inked a $250 million Nike deal just months later.

It all began nearly thirty years ago, when Oregonians became the first in the nation to abandon their public universty system by voting for property tax cuts that left state colleges to fend for themselves. A decade later, dozens more states had set out on the same path, which has led us here: in 2017, for the first time, public colleges and universities in most states drew the majority of their revenue from tuition dollars rather than taxpayer support. The American public has, in other words, become a minority shareholder in the nation’s public universities. And what happens next is all too clear if you know where to look.

I began with a notebook full of questions, a campus full of rumors, and a sense that the University of Oregon was a canary worth following down a coal mine. My goal was not to write a biography of Phil Knight, whose life and career have been documented more extensively, and more flatteringly, in books authored by his friends, his colleagues, and himself. If my portrait of Knight seems overly critical, it is because I’ve sought to document a narrow slice of his life that has proven to be consistently controversial—namely, the extent to which his financial support of the University of Oregon has bought him influence over an institution that is meant to serve public, rather than private, interests. Four years after I began investigating Knight’s dealings with the university, my notebook had far fewer questions than answers, thanks to well over a hundred interviews, supplemented by many thousands of pages of financial, legal, and archival documents.

At last, I have “my angle.”

Table of Contents

Introduction vii

1 TrackTown, U.S.A. 3

2 Outside Money 40

3 We Don't Make Shoes 68

4 Severed Ties 85

5 Industrial Education 95

6 A Different Way of Doing Things 124

7 We'll Market You in Ways No One Ever Imagined 146

8 The World Thinks of Us as a Sports Franchise 170

9 Public Interest 193

10 Rinse and Repeat 211

Note on Sources 231

Endnotes 233

Acknowledgments 277

Index 279

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