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Whitlock: Nike and Phil Knight’s rulership of popular culture corrupts Sports Illustrated and America

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Nike founder Phil Knight is the modern-day Don Corleone, the mafia kingpin portrayed in the iconic "Godfather" movies.

For writing this, I half expect to find a horse's head lying beneath the covers of my bed. Or maybe Knight will dispatch one of his soldiers to make me an offer I can't refuse.

Perhaps it will be Larry Miller, the chairman of Jordan Brand, the Phil Knight soldier profiled on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated. In a glowing, 2,800-word stenography/hagiography written by Howard Beck, Miller confesses to murdering an 18-year-old black boy in 1965 while a member of a Philadelphia street gang. The profile contends Miller is confessing to the murder (a second time; he confessed to the police a day after the murder) on the pages of Sports Illustrated because he and his daughter are writing a memoir of his life and he was afraid the details of the crime would leak.

This is why I analogize Knight to Vito Corleone, the don of dons. If you remember, in "The Godfather," Don Corleone uses his friends in the media to write a friendly narrative about his son, Michael, murdering a dirty New York cop.

Only Knight and Nike have the power to get Sports Illustrated to write a puff piece about an executive who rose to power while concealing the fact that from ages 13 to 30 he was a violent and routinely incarcerated member of a street gang. The story contends that Miller worked alongside Knight, Michael Jordan, and NBA commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver for nearly three decades without their knowledge of his criminal past. In addition to his high-level roles at Nike, Miller was president of the Portland Trail Blazers from 2007 until 2012.

At the age of 16, Miller confessed to the second-degree murder of Edward White, a man Miller killed for no reason. White had no criminal history and was not involved in gang activity.

"That's what makes it even more difficult for me, because it was for no reason at all," Miller told Beck during a 90-minute interview. "I mean, there was no valid reason for this to happen. And that's the thing that I really struggle with and that's — you know, it's the thing that I think about every day. It's like, I did this, and to someone who — it was no reason to do it. And that's the part that really bothers me."

If you read the Sports Illustrated profile, it's laced with sympathy for Miller, not White. Adam Silver's reaction to learning Miller murdered an innocent man 56 years ago is breathtaking.

"I then went from stunned to amazed that Larry had managed his long and very successful professional career, operating at the highest levels in our industry, with this secret firmly intact, and was ultimately left with a feeling of sadness that Larry had carried this burden all these years without the support of his many friends and colleagues."

How powerful is Phil Knight?

The commissioner of a major sports league is filled with sadness for the perpetrator of a murder, not the victim. Sports Illustrated published a 2,800-word story that never provided a single detail about Miller's other crimes. Miller only did four years for the murder of Edward White. Eleven years after the murder, Miller filed a petition to set aside his guilty plea on the basis of ineffective legal counsel. According to court documents, Miller filed that petition while in prison for a conviction on a kidnapping charge.

Sports Illustrated published none of this information. You can read it for yourself here. Beck also never mentioned charges of burglary, theft, and weapons.

Here's what Beck made a point to mention and emphasize:

"Since Miller returned to Jordan Brand in 2012, the company has expanded its roster of female athletes, launched the Jordan women's line and increased its presence in college and sports outside basketball. He also has overseen the development of the Jordan Brand's social-impact platform, known as Wings."

I'm not interested in denigrating Larry Miller. The courts punished him for his crimes. He does not appear to require additional punishment. My concern is: What does his life say about modern America, corporate media, and Nike's power?

Miller's story of redemption is being framed inaccurately. Corporate media is obsessed with telling stories focused on alleged systemic racism and how America must be radically changed in order to achieve racial justice. By his own admission, Larry Miller tossed away 17 years of his life as a career criminal, changed course and became a multimillionaire, high-level executive. Miller's story proves this is the land of second, third, and fourth chances regardless of skin color. Miller's story proves that corporate media is in bed with major corporations and will withhold the truth at the behest of its corporate overlords. Miller's story proves corporate media and major corporations are the proponents of unequal justice.

Miller's actual crimes are rationalized away. Meanwhile, football coach Jon Gruden's email thought crimes are exaggerated and used to frame him as evil and unworthy of leadership.

Miller told Sports Illustrated that he's "blown away by how positive the response has been" to his murder confession.

The real story here is the power of Nike and Phil Knight.

Knight is the most powerful man in American popular culture. He controls the sports world and therefore oversees the most potent content in popular culture. Knight and Nike erased memories of Kobe Bryant's rape allegation and public use of a homophobic slur, turning Mamba into a deity no one can question. Transitioning Miller from gangbanger to shoe salesman was easy. The media will not dare ask why or how. That would be racist. That would go against the cult and belief in the miracles Knight regularly produces.

Water into wine. Not bad. Try murderer into mogul.

"Larry Miller has played an influential role in Nike history and is a beloved member of the Nike family," Nike CEO John Donohoe said in a statement to Sports Illustrated. "His story is an example of the resilience, perseverance and strength of the human spirit. I hope his experience can create a healthy discourse around criminal justice reform, by helping remove the stigma that holds people and communities back."

Yes, it's the stigma that held Edward White back. It wasn't a bullet. It was a stigma. Three decades ago, Nike removed or ignored the stigma around Larry Miller's name and used him to strengthen Nike's stranglehold on drug dealers, the hip-hop crowd, and prison culture. The gym shoe wars played out across America's urban streets. Thirty years ago, Miller knew far more about the streets than gym shoes. He was a valuable resource in need of an image makeover.

No one does image makeovers better than Phil Knight and Nike.

Knight's $50-billion-a-year Nike empire dwarfs the NFL's and the NBA's financial impact, global reach, and ability to shift culture.

Knight is the 21st century's Walt Disney. The shoemaker is America's puppet master and primary cultural gatekeeper. Through his management of Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Colin Kaepernick and influence over the NBA and NFL, Knight has made the American sports world bend to the will of the market that matters most to Nike — China.

Thirty years ago, Sports Illustrated would be covering that story rather than repackaging Larry Miller as a social justice warrior with a dirty little secret.
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