Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight has long been known for being unconventional. The man whose company is perhaps best known for its advertising once told his ad agency he doesn’t believe in advertising. When he handed the reins over to a lieutenant in 1983, he disappeared to China (before returning the next year), saying, “I’m splitting from this turkey farm.” Legend holds that few, if any, employees have ever seen his office at Nike’s headquarters, an inner sanctum decked out in Japanese style where no shoes (not even Nikes) are allowed.
He was the same enigmatic man on Thursday when he stood on the Pennsylvania State University campus in the Bryce Jordan Center, in front of gathered Penn State students, administrators and alumni, and basically called the university’s top brass villains. “The matter was in the hands of a world-class university and a president with an outstanding national reputation,” Knight said of the child sexual assault charges facing former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky that have engulfed the institution. “Whatever the details of the investigation are, this much is clear to me: There is a villain in this tragedy that lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno’s response to it.” The comment drew a rousing standing ovation that lasted nearly a minute long.
The event was a memorial to longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s life, his contributions to a university, and the leadership of one man who had such an outsized impact on the lives of decades of players and students. But in bringing up the elephant in the room, Phil Knight offered another example of leadership. It may have been born out of ego. One may not agree with Knight that Paterno doesn’t share some of the blame. But he spoke out when no one else would, and that’s worth the attention he’s getting.
His message stood out because he was an outsider, and perhaps only an outsider could say the words he spoke. Of all the speakers at Paterno’s more than two-hour memorial service, only Knight did not have direct ties with Penn State, and he was the only one to address the scandal. Being an outsider helped him raise questions about what is unquestionably a major issue in the whole horrid affair—a university that allegedly tried to quiet unspeakable charges—but there are still many who wouldn’t have done it.
Knight wasn’t a complete outsider, of course. For 12 years, he said, he had called Paterno his “hero,” a person he had looked up to following the death of another legendary coach, Bill Bowerman. This admission might seem a little odd coming from a man worth billions of dollars who founded a colossally successful company. Most people in that position don’t talk about needing heroes. But we all do, and leaders willing to admit they need one are worth the listen.
Many have wrestled with Paterno’s role in the scandal. The veteran coach was fired amid questions about why he didn’t do more to follow up on allegations of child sexual abuse by Sandusky. And some have found it difficult to pair the icon of wholesome values and clean football with a leader who didn’t do more to stop such horrific acts. They’ve struggled with how much Paterno shares some of the blame when the university could have done so much more. Whether you agree with this or not, Knight didn’t, and was willing to say so. “I do not follow conventional wisdom. Joe is my hero. Every day for 12 of the last 12 years but it does lead me to this question: Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?”
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