The genesis of Joshua Hunt’s new book was an episode many of us remember well.
As a freelance writer for The New York Times, Hunt covered the case of three Oregon basketball players accused of rape in 2014. His experiences dealing with the school’s administration, and especially its public relations office, convinced him there was a bigger story waiting to be told.
“I was left with a lot of questions about how the school had handled the case,” Hunt said. “There’s this big brand to protect. Not just the University of Oregon brand, which Nike incidentally created, but also the Nike brand.”
As the title makes plain, Hunt’s book is a critical look at the cozy relationship between the school and the Swoosh. “University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education” focuses on the transformation that occurred during the tenure of president Dave Frohnmayer, when Nike cofounder Phil Knight began investing millions to boost the image of his alma mater.
Much of the book will be familiar to those who follow university politics in Eugene. For those readers, “University of Nike” is less a damning indictment and more a sobering reminder of the myriad conflicts that can arise when a school and a corporation join hands.
Even for those who know the story, it’s revealing to see how Hunt connects the dots, showing how cuts in state funding created the void Knight and Nike would step in to fill.
The most powerful section of the book deals with the Worker Rights Consortium saga of 2000. At the time, Nike was embroiled in controversy over working conditions in its overseas factories and Frohnmayer faced pressure from campus protestors to take a stand.
Knight was incensed when Frohnmayer entered the university into the WRC, an advocacy group devoted to improving overseas working conditions. Knight favored a different group, the Fair Labor Association, which was a collaboration between human rights organizations and the apparel industry.
Knight responded by pulling his contributions, including a planned $30 million gift for the expansion of Autzen Stadium. Those details are well known, extensively reported by The Register-Guard and other outlets at the time.
Lesser known were the personal consequences of Frohnmayer’s decision. In 1989 Dave and his wife, Lynn, started the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund to pursue a cure for the rare genetic disease afflicting their three daughters.
Knight became the foundation’s largest donor, making $1 million annual contributions. In the wake of the WRC controversy, Hunt wrote, Knight “made it clear that he would not be making his annual contribution to the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund” and gave the foundation nothing in 2000.
In a statement released through her attorney, Lynn Frohnmayer disputed the claim that Knight withheld support in retaliation for the WRC decision. She said she urged Hunt to contact FARF and verify Knight’s giving record, which she said included a $1 million contribution on Jan. 4, 2001, while the university was still a member of the WRC.
“I am forever grateful for Mr. Knight’s generous support for Fanconi research,” she said. “I’m saddened that Mr. Hunt’s book apparently ignored my request to check the facts.”
In an email to The Register-Guard, FARF executive director Mark Quinlan said the foundation did not have consent to reveal Knight’s giving records. Knight declined to comment; an attorney representing Frohnmayer confirmed dates and amounts, including two $1 million donations in both 1999 and 2001, but could not provide further documentation.
Ascribing motivation is a difficult thing, but Hunt provides evidence that, at minimum, there was a belief that Knight’s anger over the WRC ordeal put his Fanconi contributions in jeopardy. Even the perception of a donor holding such power over the university president illustrates the complex relationship between Knight and the school.
“At the very least, people had a right to know that Phil Knight had this kind of financial influence over Dave Frohnmayer in this very personal way,” Hunt said.
“University of Nike” makes no attempt to hide its intentions. The book will be red meat for those critical of Oregon’s relationship with Knight and Nike. And for those who see the relationship as a two-sided coin, benefiting the university in some ways and diminishing it in others, the book is a useful addition to the canon of Oregon-Nike history.
More than anything, “University of Nike” is a call for citizens to stay vigilant about what happens in the halls of power, and for Oregonians to push against the university’s inclination toward secrecy.
The moment you stop paying attention, the game is all over.
Follow Austin on Twitter @austinmeekRG. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.