Thanks, Uncle Phil

Source: Instagram

It wasn’t until the final 45 seconds of the game that I allowed myself to believe the University of Oregon Ducks were going to the Final Four. The last time they made it that far in the tournament they won the whole sha-bang. The year was 1939, and there were eight teams in the tournament.

The victory netted me $100 on a crazy bet I made months ago that Oregon would reach the Final Four stage. I promptly spent the money (sent immediately via Venmo, thanks Woodsy!) on two $45 glasses of whisky, plus tip. That’s unreasonable. I learned three important lessons:

  1. $45 whisky doesn’t taste all that different from $15 whisky;
  2. I feel conflicted about my interests and my values;
  3. Always post that to social media after drinking.

Hence this post.

In Uncle Phil We Trust

Spending $45 on a glass of whisky makes about as much sense as spending hundreds of millions on a sports program for teenagers.

That’s what Nike founder, Phil Knight does for the Oregon Ducks. And I’m all for it — like he’s doing it for me. If their football team is winning easily (a sad rarity in 2016), he usually heads to on the on-field exit early and students and fans like me who catch a glimpse give a cheer and a hearty, “Thanks, Uncle Phil.”

I’m not sure exactly when he earned the title, but it fits. He’s everybody in Oregon’s rich uncle. The one you hit up to sponsor the kids’ Little League team in exchange for the name of his business on the jerseys. Only in this case the uncle’s company designs the sportswear and comes up with the loudest designs the world has seen.

In case you think Phil Knight might cringe at this title, the $68 billion dollar football complex he funded has a locker for Knight. The nameplate above reads: “Uncle Phil.”

His shoe empire was born at his alma mater with the help of legendary Oregon track coach, Bill Bowerman. You know, the guy who made rubber tread for running shoes in his wife’s waffle iron? Uncle Phil wants a football championship. But he’ll settle for any major sports one.

After rival Oregon State shocked the country and state by winning their second College World Series in 2007, Knight pressed the University of Oregon to restart their baseball program that had been dropped way back in1981. They are pretty good, but Oregon State is ranked number 1. (More money, Uncle Phil!)

Uncle Phil’s Hardwood

Football is the jewel in the crown of the college sports world, but basketball is where the money is at, and it’s what propelled Nike to the cultural phenomena it is today. Air Jordan anyone?

There’s little doubt that without Knight’s largess the Ducks basketball programs (both men and women) would not be playing in March, unless it was in the NIT instead of NCAA tourney. In fact, the Ducks couldn’t find a top-tier basketball coach to takeover the men’s team until they assured current coach, Dana Altman, that thanks to Uncle Phil, a new arena would be built to replace the 1920s-era MacArthur Court. “Mac” or “The Pit” was named after a University of Oregon student-athlete who was student body president and eventually a member of Congress. Crucially, he was NOT a billionaire.

The new basketball arena is named after Knight’s son Matthew who died at 34, after diving triggered a congenital heart defect. It’s the most expensive college arena in the country and cost Knight $100 million to insure the bonds that actually paid for the $278 million shrine. A few details from a recent AP story:

The lettering on the marquee spells out “Matt” — “in a Japanese-inspired Torii gate shape,” according to the arena website .
There’s artwork outside the arena and fan-tribute displays on the concourse.
The floor, emblazoned with the “Matt” logo set above the words “Deep in the Woods” is designed with the silhouette of a Pacific Coast tree line, in honor of Oregon’s 1939 title team, known as The Tall Firs .
Courtesy: Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, Inc.

The University held “Uncle Phil Appreciation Night” on Knight’s 76th birthday at the MATT. Knight will host three of the Final Four teams at PK80, a special 16-team tournament for his 80th birthday in November.

Inequality for the Win

I love Oregon sports, but I hate inequality. It’s a conflict, but I can do both…right?

I can be grateful that Uncle Phil’s $600 million in donations to the OHSU Cancer Center…excuse me, the Phil Knight Cancer Center means that my family members and many others in the state receive some of the best treatment in the world. I’m also disgusted that we rely on billionaires to provide basic healthcare services that are free in other countries.

I can cheer my heart out for Oregon sports, while noting the outsized importance children’s games are given in the U.S. higher education system. Knight using his wealth to create a sustainable and free higher education options aligns more with my values than giving more than $300 million to Oregon athletics, but I’ll still celebrate the Ws!

Knight’s giving patterns create inequality on campus. There are the two athletic centers he has funded costing over $100 million that sit across from crumbling student facilities. The athletic center and football center are closed to students. Actually, students can buy coffee in the shop on the first floor of the John E Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes, so there’s that. They don’t have access to the personal tutors the athletes receive and health care amenities.

The injustice bred by college sports was on full display in the 2014 basketball season. Two players accused of sexual assault were allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament. The reason given: the athletic department claims Eugene police told them not to punish the players until the investigation was complete. A third player transferred to Oregon fleeing from a sexual assault allegations in Providence. The athletic department claimed they had no idea that was why he transferred.

Naughty Knight

It’s not just that I want Uncle Phil to dole out his cash differently. There are reasons to be anti-Uncle Phil. Knight pulled a $30 million donation to expand the football stadium in 2000. Students were demanding the university stand against sweatshops — the kind that made Knight rich.

Nike and other corporations setup their own watchdog group, the Fair Labor Organization to get around the strict labor oversight being demanded by grassroots groups like the Workers Rights Consortium. Students demanded the university only do business with companies in the W.R.C. and the University of Oregon administration relented.

The victory was short-lived. Knight has powerful friends in the state and the country. Even the New York Times came in on his side.

Ultimately, the Oregon University System changed their policy and demanded that all universities in the state remain “politically neutral” when choosing business partners. If the import of this is hard to get your head around, imagine if students were attempting to force their university to divest from businesses active in South Africa in the 1980s, and wealthy donors pulled donations and used political pressure to stop the divestment. Not only did Knight stop the students on his issue, he promoted a policy that means Oregon Universities will never take meaningful political stands with their budgets.

Lest you think Knight was committed to Oregon setting a precedent by joining his F.L.A., the new rules meant that the university couldn’t join either labor organization. Still, Knight reinstated his donation and added $20 million more as a reward.


Still, I’m cheering for my Ducks today.

I’m complex, paradoxical, definitely hypocritical. We all are, especially in Oregon.

It’s a state that loves its weed and guns. Oregon led the nation being the first state with a recycling program and public beaches. It lags in being one of the few holdouts against a consumption tax and makes up that difference with an unseemly number of lottery machines enticing patrons. Oregon boasts stunning natural beauty, but it has the second worst record on monitoring water quality in the country.

Really, this is not all that unique. We are all complicated to the point of hypocrisy.


Yet in this current political climate there’s no room for nuance or even uncertainty. Any single political opinion you articulate automatically saddles you with many others. It doesn’t allow us to see reason in opposing viewpoints simultaneously, or be politically complex.

When I’m not drinking overpriced whisky and watching unpaid teenagers make their schools millions, I’m often embroiling myself in another conflict — Twitter fights with journalists who see the Russian interference in the election as a distraction at best and a prelude to WWIII at worst.

Whereas I see the need for a thorough, non-partisan investigation into Russian efforts to elect Trump, they see a “Deep State Coup”. Where I see a modern day Watergate, where the Deputy Director of the FBI leaked information when it became clear that the Nixon White House was pursuing a cover-up, they see “the same intelligence community that said Iraq WMD’s were a slam-dunk,” subverting democracy.

I’m someone who aligns ideologically with these people usually and trust their reporting and viewpoints. Like them, I’m a Bernie Bro. But I’m deeply conflicted. My views are nuanced. I believe, like cheering for the Oregon Ducks while hating the system that spawned them, that you can agree on some points as your brethren while disagreeing on others. The need to label and categorize means we demand a purity of thought to join our team.
 Like the anti-abortionist who agrees with the death penalty. Or my (unfortunately not rich) uncle who risks his life at every traffic stop or warrant served, but still stands against the systemic abuses of police violence. Or Trump supporters who hate Obamacare but deep down believe in universal health care.

There’s little room for uncertainty, complexity and imperfection in this current hyper-partisan climate. If you cringe at Hillary’s high-priced speaking gigs at the big banks, you are a “Bro” who can count political naiveté with your certain sexism. God forbid you liked Hillary, you must love inequality. Think this Russia shit is crazy and Trump might be compromised? Well, you refuse to see the failures of neoliberalism, and you worship the C.I.A.

A phrase an old friend said shortly after he came out as gay has been rattling around my brain. He was looking for a new church to call home. “I can’t find a home. Any church that will have me is too liberal with their interpretation of The Word. Any that aligns with my beliefs won’t have me.”

Dogma that used to be the provenance of religion has infected all levels of political identity.

I’m not a clone of the next fan of Oregon. Many, no doubt, unquestioningly relish the unfair advantage we have in a rich Uncle Phil that other schools don’t. But we we throw our <O> and cheer as one at games. Strangers I’d normally never connect with become fast friends in Autzen Stadium, MATT Arena or a distant bar.

In sports, we allow each other to be a bit crazy…completely crazy. It’s crazy to tie my emotions to the performance of 19-year-old kids from across the country (and Montreal). It makes no sense that I stay up to the wee hours watching a team from a school I didn’t even attend. To cheer for the Ducks is crazy, and I love it.
 I can love the Ducks, but hate inequality at the same time. I don’t believe we should have billionaires at all, but I’ll still take their money to try and make the world a better place, or just to help me buy overpriced whisky. Does that make me weak, fake, dishonest? Maybe.
 “Hysteria” is the watchword of my Twitter interlocutors. I chafe at the phrase. I pride myself on being reasonable, following the facts and absolutely being consistent. But if I’m honest, the phrase is apt. I’m hysterical about voter suppression, rampant inequality, climate change, and even the idea of Russia putting their thumb on the electoral scale for Trump.

But nothing brings out my hysteria like the Ducks. Life’s messy. And I’m a mess. GO DUCKS!
 Thanks, Uncle Phil.