Commentary -- `We Are Not The Evil Empire' -- Nike, Ties To Organized Sports, Under Constant Surveillance

PHILADELPHIA - Keith Peters was in the Giants Stadium press box on Sept. 4 to answer questions. That was the Nike plan. Phil Knight, Nike's bearded and floppy-haired founder and CEO, was to take that "Monday Night Football" white-sneaker stroll across the synthetic turf with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, but then he was out of there.

It was Peters's job, as Nike's public relations director, to explain to all that Knight was not The Great Satan of organized sports, but rather a man in constant search of good marketing opportunities for his publicly held company.

"Who's that with Jerry Jones?" one writer seated in front of Peters asked out loud.

Peters waited silently for someone to provide enlightenment.

It never came. Finally, he offered, "That's Phil Knight."

"Who's he?" asked the writer. "A rock star?"

If only it were that simple. If only Phil Knight toyed with a guitar instead of the NFL, NBA and the Olympics, he - and Nike, his $5 billion-a-year company - would be much easier to define.

Instead, the mammoth company that started from Knight's station wagon a little more than three decades ago is under constant surveillance from those who monitor the increasing complexities of organized sport. And Knight, its enigmatic and low-profile leader, is alternately described as being in the mold of Walt Disney - or Saddam Hussein.

"We are not the evil empire," Peters said.

Maybe not evil, but it is an empire. And like all empires, Nike's appetite for conquest seems insatiable.

On the cutting edge of the running boom two decades ago, Nike now builds shoes for virtually every sport, and recently purchased a hockey equipment company for $400 million. Its line of hiking boots, built for the latest boom, is a big success. Its apparel division holds a steady market share.

Nike just finished its greatest fiscal year, completing a rebound from a mid-'80s slump that forced Knight to lay off more than 600 employees. Still, Knight is not content. Although he declined to be interviewed for this (and most) articles, he has made clear his intention to expand globally, and to become more involved in the sports he outfits.

Already within the campuslike corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., lies something called Nike Sports Management, a six-person staff that handles all endorsement deals for about 10 of its contracted athletes. Already Nike has its own golf tour. Already Knight and Nike have been accused of influencing what is aired, especially during the Olympics, when it provides a significant nut of the television advertising. Already Nike is said to influence the very content of material written about the company in books and periodicals.

Around the same time that Knight took his stroll with Jones, tennis player Boris Becker was complaining at the U.S. Open that a Nike sponsorship guaranteed rivals better match times and more TV exposure at the tournament. Not surprisingly, the final between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi was all-Nike and even mimicked the commercial Nike ran throughout the Open.

Knight has denied that Nike can influence how sports are run, played or perceived. "We don't have that much power," he told Newsweek.

He does not deny though, that the empire must continue to grow, or risk collapse.

"I'll never quit worrying about Nike," Knight has said. "And we'll never stop needing to win.

"If you want to be loved, lose."

It's a sentiment that could have, and has, spilled from the mouth of Jones, whose deals with Nike and Pepsi have resulted in a $300 million lawsuit filed by the NFL. Both men nurture and relish the image of rebels. "This is a marriage of two organizations that transcend sports in the United States," Jones boasted.

By joining Jones in an exclusive marketing venture, Knight slapped his big swoosh logo over the sacred turf of NFL licensing, a key ingredient to pro football's revenue-sharing system.

For five years, Nike has sought to be an NFL sponsor. For five years, the NFL has kept Knight at arm's length. Finally Knight, with Jones's help, sidestepped them as he would a puddle, giving the Dallas owner $2.5 million a year for the right to stick a swoosh on anything he pleases in Texas Stadium. Unlike Jones, who simply seeks to improve his profits, Knight's complicity in the Nike-Texas Stadium deal carried this message to football establishment:

Play with me. Or against me.

"Phil," Peters said, "has been known to be a tough negotiator."

"Phil," said an agent who asked not to be identified, "is always seeking more control of his product. And as much as sneakers, his product is athletes and their teams."

In its suit, the NFL charges that Jones's deal with Nike would "destroy the structure and operations of NFL Properties." Minnesota Vikings president Roger Headrick, chairman of NFL Properties, warned that endorsement deals like the one between Nike and Jones could "create a league of haves and have-nots" if allowed to stand.

Days after the deal was announced, free agent and Nike endorser Deion Sanders signed a contract with the Cowboys that included a $13 million bonus. A coincidence, Knight said, but rumors abounded that Nike had picked up some of that fat bonus and helped Dallas remain under the NFL's salary cap. Knight wants to go global, and the Cowboys are the world's most identifiable football team.

"We didn't violate any NFL agreements or laws of the land," Knight said.

He just stepped around them. As he would a puddle.

The son of a Portland lawyer, Phil "Buck" Knight was a marginal miler for the University of Oregon in the late 1950s. As such, he was open to suggestions and experimentation about improvement, a trait that served him well once he decided to abandon his job as a certified public accountant and begin selling sneakers. Knight started by selling a Japanese-made sneaker called Tiger out of the back of his station wagon and at area track meets. But the big break came when his former Oregon coach, Bill Bowerman, designed a sole by pouring plastic into a waffle iron.

That wasn't the only idea that wasn't Knight's. He didn't come up with the Nike name or the fat checkmark for the emblem. He was talked into both. He wasn't even crazy about building an advertising campaign around an NBA rookie named Michael Jordan.

"Hi, I'm Phil Knight and I don't believe in advertising," he told Dan Wieden the first day he met him. Wieden, head of a little Portland advertising agency, then created campaigns like "Bo knows," "It's got to be the shoes," and the ever-present "Just do it."

Each captured the public's fancy. Each led to record sales, and record celebrity for the athletes featured. Jordan and Bo Jackson became bigger than the sports they played. A corporate giant was born. Nike won, and was loved. Players sought to be Nike endorsers, "to be like Mike." Knight started naming buildings after the premier members of Team Nike.

Today Knight, who holds a large majority of the Nike stock, is a billionaire. As the No. 1 athletic shoe company in the United States, Nike grossed nearly as much over the last year as the NBA, NFL and major league baseball combined. In an industry that as a whole is growing only 5 percent annually, Nike's revenue of $4.76 billion for the fiscal year that ended in July represents a $971 million improvement from the year before. It is opening a series of superstores called "Nike Town." It is expanding globally, particularly trying to make inroads into the soccer shoe industry still dominated by Adidas.

Still, as Knight has said, "There are only so many feet out there." This 57-year-old man also yearns to be more than a shoe salesman, more than "Al Bundy with an enormous advertising budget," as Julie Vader, of the Oregonian newspaper, recently described him. When Reebok took off with the aerobics boom in the 1980s, as Nike once did via distance running, Knight at first sulked about the success of what he called "inferior shoes," even disappearing for months in China.

Some associated with the company have even argued that a CPA is all he ever has been with Nike, that three behind-the-scenes guys have been the fuel line to his success. One, Jeff Johnson, created state-of-the-art shoes in the early going before selling his share and retiring to New Hampshire a millionaire.

In recent years, Nike has been portrayed as a typical, unfeeling, corporate giant. It has been accused of racism through its gotta-have-'em marketing, and begetting sneaker thievery and even death in the streets through its high pricing. It has been accused of sending morally depraved messages and of using morally depraved messengers. Last Christmas, Nike ran an ad in which the NBA's tattoo man, Dennis Rodman, threatened Santa Claus. Before that, Knight drew criticism for contributing $25,000 to Tonya Harding's legal defense.

"Does advertising create trends or reflect them?" asks Tom George, who leads Advantage, the agency that markets Detroit Pistons star Grant Hill. "Years ago, to get endorsements, you had to be squeaky clean. Then the pendulum swung, and Nike was right there with guys like (Charles) Barkley and Rodman. Then the pendulum swung again just as the Rodman spots came about. They got caught. And they got a bad rap."

With increasing frequency, Nike also has been accused of distorting competitive team sports by buying the allegiance of stars. Remember when Olympic Dream Teamers, led by Jordan and Barkley, refused to wear Reebok warmups to the medals stand in Barcelona?

After signing a $16 million deal with Nike a few years ago, Charlotte Hornets center Alonzo Mourning was asked whether his allegiance was to his team or his shoe company. Without hesitation, he said, "I work for Nike."

Nike also has been charged with corrupting college athletics, because it pays prominent coaches to outfit their teams in Nike shoes and apparel. Forever late in its vigilance, the NCAA last February launched a committee to investigate the relationship between apparel outfitters and the athletic community. The recommendation was that manufacturers be prohibited from writing, calling or meeting with college athletes.

No ruling has been made. And as Penn State football coach Joe Paterno leads his swoop-emblazoned team onto the field this fall, Nike defends the practice. Peters said it was no different than a barber shop sponsoring a Little League team. "We are not out to change the game," he said, playing off Fila's marketing slogan.

George agrees. "It's all about selling shoes," he said.