It’s difficult to understand why the news Rory Mcllroy is about to sign a lucrative endorsement deal with Nike is receiving so much positive coverage. The finest golfer ever produced by the island of Ireland (the neat way of avoiding his nationality conundrum) is supposed to be inking a contract with the most scandal-ridden corporation ever to dip its toes into the world of sport. Why is that a good thing? How is that a good thing? Who would want our brightest sporting light to be associated with a company which has become synonymous with drugs and cheating?
There was a point recently when Nike dropping Lance Armstrong was seen as a huge step forward. Once the people behind the trademark swoosh jumped ship on the disgraced cyclist turned part-time pharmaceutical rep, the American public, strangely uninterested in the Livestrong fraudster to that juncture in the narrative, suddenly sat up and paid attention. Of course, it was pointed out by many that Nike’s departure was far too little far too late. Not only had they stood by their man long after it was obvious to anybody with a brain he was a cheat, they had once tried to make commercial capital out of the drug allegations against him.
“This is my body and I can do whatever I want to it,” said Armstrong in the infamous television advertisement where he mocked his critics. “I can push it, and study it, tweak it, listen to it. Everybody wants to know what I’m on. What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?”
That came out in 2001 when legitimate questions were already being asked of his achievements in the Tour de France. Upon his return to the sport, they fashioned another, equally offensive ad.
“The critics say I’m arrogant, a doper, washed up, a fraud, that I couldn’t let it go,” said Armstrong. “They can say whatever they want. I’m not back on my bike for them.”
Mcllroy isn’t on anything and has never thankfully being suspected of being on anything even though golf is not reportedly immune from the steroid menace. This early in what looks like being a long career, the 23 year old from Holywood has represented all we love about games. Almost uniquely among Irish competitors in the modern era, he has delivered on all the breathless hype which prefaced his arrival into the professional arena. Think about all the soccer starlets who never amount to anything after having greatness foisted upon them from an early age like he did.
With Mcllroy, there’s more to admire than just the performances on the course. There is also the way he has handled himself. The finest moment of his career came at a major but not at one of the ones where he went home with the trophy. It was at Augusta when he walked off the 18th green following his epic final round collapse. The moment he stopped and talked with such grace and dignity to the television cameras, when a lesser man might have waved off the microphone and begged to be left alone with his grief, was memorable. It bespoke somebody comfortable in their own skin who understands the true nature of sport.
His grace under fire was in stark contrast to the antics of Tiger Woods who that same Sunday gave a churlish, ill-tempered and childish interview to the same journalist as he came off the course. This is important because Woods was Mcllroy’s predecessor as the face of Nike golf. Indeed, Woods and Nike made buckets of money for each other peddling an image of the great one that was, we have since found out, far removed from the reality of how he lived his life.
This has been the way of it with Nike for too long and this is why we should be horrified at Mcllroy getting into bed with them. He is the genuine article yet he is now signing up with people who specialize in selling us athletes in all codes who aren’t the genuine article at all. Space does not permit us to go through the full list of Nike-sponsored athletes who have fallen foul of the drug testers because there are too many of them.
We could start with Rio Ferdinand, a Nike client when he missed his drug test at Manchester United, but really, he’s only small beer. What about Marion Jones? Arguably the biggest cheat in Olympic history (at least until some of the London sprinters about whom we are entitled to be suspicious are found out), Jones was Nike’s darling for years. In the build-up to the 2004 games, the company ran six-page advertorials about her in the glossy magazines. She was underwritten by the swoosh even as drug allegations (later proven) swirled around her. So were most of the other dirty sprinters of that generation, including Jones’ ex-husband Tim Montgomery,
When he signs with Nike, Mcllroy will be linking up with a company founded by Phil Knight back in Oregon in 1964. Earlier this year, Knight delivered a eulogy at the public memorial service for the late Joe Paterno (who had a contract with Nike). Paterno was the former coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions, one of the most fabled college grid-iron teams in the history of American sport. He was fired in disgrace when it emerged he had refused to involve outside authorities after learning that Jerry Sandusky, one of his long-time assistants was a serial paedophile who had used the college facilities to molest kids.
“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. Joe is my hero.”
Knight said that about a man who refused to use his powers to set the police on somebody he knew was an active paedophile. Knight is still the chairman of Nike. A nice company for a brilliant, young sportsman to be getting involved with. Not.
(First published in the Evening Echo, October 26th, 2012)