The prosecution of Oscar Pistorius for Reeva Steenkamp’s murder is playing out on the front pages of newspapers and websites across the world. This is not the way most trials, even murder trials, proceed — unknown to anyone not related to the parties involved — and it’s much more prominent even than most coverage of similar crimes committed by athletes. People are shocked by this case for reasons beyond its graphic, terrible details. And at the nexus of the reasons why this is true, there is Nike.
Oscar Pistorius was a Nike athlete. Nike suspended their endorsement of him today, meaning that they haven’t dropped him altogether — they’re just keeping him at a distance until this whole murder-trial thing works out. Potentially, one day, if Pistorius and his lawyers successfully argue that he shot Steenkamp in the mistaken belief that she was a burglar and, escaping with minimal to no jail time, he returns to the track, Nike could reunite with him, restoring the relationship that made this story so internationally significant in the first place.
In fact, the last three sports meltdowns of this magnitude have involved larger-than-life characters whose mythic personas were created, cultivated, and relentlessly amplified by the shoe company. Before the Jerry Sandusky child-molestation scandal disgraced Joe Paterno, Nike had gone so far as to name a child development center at their headquarters after him, playing into his image as a principled role model for youth. They’ve since dropped his name from the building, though cofounder and chairman Phil Knight has also walked back his disavowal of Paterno.
Meanwhile, Lance Armstrong owed a huge portion of both his own personal brand as well as that of his charity, Livestrong, to the promotional efforts of Nike, who used his triumph over cancer and dominance of cycling to turn him into not just the face of his relatively minor sport but one of the most well-known athletes in the world, an international symbol for hard work. After years of supporting Armstrong through increasingly credible allegations that his hard work was supplemented by cheating, extreme levels of dishonesty, and legal intimidation of innocent third parties, Nike finally severed its relationship with him in the wake of his admission that he had in fact taken PEDs for many years.
Then there’s Tiger Woods. Tiger Woods is the perfect case study for what modern Nike, fully possessed of its powers, can create: the perfect, all-encompassing sports superstar, formed from a few basic catchy details (in Tiger’s case, his racial boundary-crossing and child-prodigy upbringing). In creating Tiger the cultural juggernaut, though, Nike abetted the hubris of Tiger the human. When Tiger’s sex scandal exploded, Nike had so thrown in its lot with him that they had little choice but to endure a version of the beating he took. Like Armstrong and Pistorius, part of Woods’ ascent to deity status had to do with the fact that he participated in a slightly off-mainstream solo sport, where his success and image could more easily be shaped by advertising. The average American sports fan can tell you the holes in LeBron James’ and Tom Brady’s résumés, or name the teammates who helped get them over the top. But tell them there’s an unprecedentedly dominant icon in cycling, golf, or Paralympic sprinting, and they’re not liable to argue.
Pistorius may have been Nike’s greatest coup. In the above photo, you can see the Nike swoosh on Pistorius’ Flex-Foot Cheetah racing legs as he prepares to race at the London Olympics last summer. The company actually became a part of Pistorius’ body — involving itself in his athletic success more than they could for the athletes to which they just supplied clothes and shoes. And it’s been a connection that’s stretched back through his career; he appeared in a Nike campaign back in 2008, when he won three gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games after having fallen just short of qualifying for the Olympics.
Without Nike, the Blade Runner would not be the Blade Runner; he’d be another post-Olympics track athlete (albeit a somewhat notorious one given his background) training on modest-to-limited sponsorship dollars waiting for the next Games. Lance Armstrong would just be a dominant athlete in a niche sport, and millions of people around the country wouldn’t have spent years wearing yellow rubber bracelets. Joe Paterno was afforded the visibility of a major college football team to establish his résumé, but gestures like Nike naming a building after him are part of why he became a seemingly infallible legend.
Like no other promotional engine in modern sports, Nike is an arbiter of significance, a stamp that evokes not only athletic triumph but also the sheen of sports cool. Nike has arguably the best advertising of any company in the world, a singular machine that can take a gifted athlete and turn him into a cross-cultural icon. Given the raw material of a Pistorius or an Armstrong, they can create deities almost literally. Pistorius and Armstrong were seemingly superhuman, known not so much as people or personalities but as representations of ideals which the rest of us could use as motivation and guidance.
It’s not surprising to most people that successful athletes are fallible human beings who sometimes say rude things to fans, get pulled over for reckless driving, and cheat on their spouses. Icon-creation marketing efforts these days are generally savvy enough not to pretend that every star is a genial humanitarian whose only hobbies are volunteering in the community and going to church. That would be silly. But the idea that athletes are better than the rest of us in some ways — more hard-working, more persistent, more courageous — is not so ridiculous, and companies like Nike are able to play on that. And Nike in particular makes guys like Oscar Pistorius and Lance Armstrong look so heroic that the public involuntarily fills in the blanks and makes them the kind of heroes we generally aren’t naive enough to have anymore. Nike starts the job, but we finish it for them. When you show Pistorius achieving beyond the limits of his body, seemingly floating across the track, how can we help but think of a superhero? When you show Armstrong’s resurrection from cancer to the zenith of sport, and you do it so effectively, how can we help but think of Jesus?
To do this, of course, is only to stave off the inevitable moment when these guys return to being human — when they have to exist outside of 30-second majesties of advertising or the context of their sport — and, though there’s no guarantee that they’ll incinerate the way that Pistorius has, if they do, it makes the fire that much brighter.
Without Nike, Pistorius very well might still have killed Reeva Steenkamp, and Armstrong and Woods very well might still have cheated, and Joe Paterno very well might still have turned a blind eye to his defensive coordinator molesting children. But afterward, instead of saying we’d just witnessed falls from “grace” — grace, of course, literally meaning a state of oneness with the divine — we’d just recognize humans in proportion to their crimes.