Nike ad may be self-serving, but end does justify means

April 14, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

The first time you see the commercial, it takes your breath away.

"Thank you for letting me be the player that I always wanted to be," Tony Gwynn says.

"For letting me compete against the very best," Matt Williams says.

One by one the stars appear, thanking Jackie Robinson -- black and white, young and old, past and present.

And then you see it.

The Nike swoosh.

You still can't catch your breath.

It feels like you've been kicked in the gut.

Would Jackie Robinson have been a Nike guy?

Would he have endorsed shoes that sell for up to $180?

Shoes over which youngsters kill one another?

Shoes made by oppressed Vietnamese workers?

These are valid questions, especially as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Robinson's breaking the color barrier.

But you know what?

The commercial is OK.

In fact, it's more than OK. At a time when people need to understand the significance of Jackie Robinson, it's a powerful educational tool.

A few years back, Ken Griffey Jr. told Sport magazine, "I don't know nothing about Jackie Robinson." Griffey not only appeared in the commercial, but also convinced his team, the Seattle Mariners, to give more prominent display to signs posted in the Kingdome saluting Robinson.

Did Nike make him do it?

Not directly, but Griffey is mindful of his influence, not to mention his image.

If that's what it took to raise his consciousness, so be it.

Sorry, but kids today won't learn the meaning of Jackie Robinson by reading about him. They probably wouldn't even bother watching a movie about him. But a Nike commercial, that they can understand.

An indictment of our times?

Of course.

But that's the reality.

The Robinson commercial is similar to other Nike vehicles celebrating women athletes ("If you let them play sports") and a certain golfer who just won the Masters ("I'm Tiger Woods.").

Some call it manipulation. Some call it exploitation.

But not Sharon Robinson, the second of Jackie's three children.

Rather than view Nike CEO Phil Knight as the Darth Vader of sports, she sees him as the chairman of a dinner that last month raised $1.4 million for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

Nike also has contributed $350,000 toward scholarships that will be awarded by the foundation, Nike spokeswoman Robin Carr-Locke said.

The foundation, created by Robinson's widow, Rachel, has awarded 425 scholarships to minority students since its inception in 1973.

"You must understand, Phil Knight was the chairman of our dinner," said Sharon Robinson, an associate professor in the Yale School of Nursing.

"They had a connection to the Jackie Robinson Foundation that has been going on all year, even before that. We don't see it as exploitative at all. It's a beautiful commercial."

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson agrees -- and if he was being used, he'd say it.

Robinson, the game's first African-American manager, delivers one of the most powerful lines in the commercial, thanking Jackie "for empowering an entire race."

Like the others who appear, he was not paid.

"I don't see anything wrong with getting a little exposure if you're doing something good," Robinson said. "They're donating money to the foundation. The foundation needs the finances to help kids."

Cynics might suggest that Nike bought off the Robinson family, but that's like questioning an athlete's motives for donating money to charity.

Who cares?

Good work is being done.

Still, let's not nominate Nike for corporate citizen of the year just yet.

Too often, it indeed resembles the evil empire.

Nike's image-making has helped create a new level of selfishness among professional athletes, who often are more loyal to the company than to their teams.

Even a relative innocent like the Orioles' Mike Mussina made sure to put on his Nike cap when he started doing TV interviews after his victory over Texas on Friday night.

"Bad hair day," Mussina said, grinning.

No, free ad time.

Woods, playing in an individual sport, is a walking Nike billboard -- the Green Jacket from the Masters may be the first piece of apparel he owns without a "Swoosh."

The Dallas Cowboys are Nike. Penn State is Nike. Sometimes, it seems the entire sports world is Nike.

And still, it's never enough.

Selling shoes is Nike's first priority -- this is America; everyone understands that. But few companies are this profitable, this powerful. Nike has a special responsibility, and so do its athletes.

"Thank you, Jackie Robinson," Ken Griffey says.

The message is more powerful than the motivation.

The message is what matters.

Pub Date: 4/14/97

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