I never thought of Nike as, oh, General Motors or anything. I mean, it seemed unlikely to become a modern equivalent of U.S. Steel, or Colgate-Palmolive, or AT&T, or some such super-mega-conglomerate. Not in my eyes, anyway. No, to me, Nike was simply some shoemaker, the kind with the squiggle on the sneaker, as opposed to the kind with the stripes.
But life with Nike turned out to be a great deal more than that. Nike is a not a cobbler, but a gobbler. Nike is a monster that ate professional sports, which was delighted to be eaten. Because, let's face it, boys and girls. Athletes don't wear Nike; Nike wears them.
The newest devouree for the Nikenstein creature is "America's Team" itself, the self-aggrandizing Dallas Cowboys, who, in utter defiance of a league agreement to merchandise not independently but co-dependently, reached an agreement last week to be Nike's own personal football team.
Jerry Jones is an old Arkansas Razorback who keeps acting like a pig. As owner of the Cowboys and as a man who has shoved George Steinbrenner and Marge Schott as far into the background as Fred and Ethel Mertz, he is a man who began his Torquemada-like administration by alienating first Tom Landry and later Jimmy Johnson, two of the smartest coaches ever to draw an X in a playbook.
Doing everything but singing "My Way," the emulous Mr. Jones celebrated a couple of championships by no longer playing the game by the rules. Having established team autonomy, the Dallas maverick next contested the authority of professional football itself. How? By issuing the most insolent challenge in U.S. beverage history, the Pepsi challenge.
Ol' Jer didn't care that Coca-Cola had a contract with the NFL to quench the thirst of each and every cola-holic customer, from Tampa Bay to Green. In a statement as bold as the one Joan Crawford once made to her fellow Pepsi board members, Jones informed the NFL not to, uh, mess with him. "No Coke! Pepsi!" he said, Belushi reborn.
This did not sit particularly well with the folks down there in Coke country, at soda-pop central in Atlanta, because any arrangement with the National Football League that does not include the Dallas Cowboys is like having an arrangement with the Rolling Stones that does not include Mick Jagger. It's not bad, but it's not exactly what you had in mind.
Jerry Jones had drawn a line in the sand. He was forming a new league, the NFLMU. Corporations must now negotiate with the National Football League, Minus Us.
The insurgency continued last Monday night, when, during a game with the New York Giants that the Cowboys were unable to dominate until the opening kickoff was caught, a pronouncement suddenly came down from Chairman Jer. Loudly and proudly emphasizing his decision to "buck" (an interesting semantic choice) the NFL, the Dallas owner disclosed that he and Nike were now man and manufacturer, till debt do they part.
This was when I knew for sure that Nike was bigger than big. Nike was now so imperial that it felt secure in telling the NFL to take a hike. It tempted the Dallas Cowboys in much the same way NBC had tempted Notre Dame, namely, into not caring what other football teams were doing. This was the new Golden Rule: do unto others, because you're \o7 better\f7 than the others.
So, by the end of the week, what everyone in the NFL was wondering was what Nike's influence on the Cowboys might be. In a chicken-and-egg twist, would Dallas clients now come to Nike, or would Nike clients now come to Dallas?
Deion Sanders, the most talked-about half-a-season interceptor of passes the world has ever known, quickly became the flavor of the month. While Prime Time was doing everything but sitting on a scale until owners matched his weight in gold, Jones was crowing about Nike and Pepsi being visible assets, how playing for the Cowboys would "enhance his money-making opportunity."
Which, as you'll recall Vince Lombardi never saying, football is all about.
Cowboy players tried to lure Sanders by more conventional means. Pass-thrower Troy Aikman and others offered to restructure their own contracts, sort of a Prime Time prime-interest rate solution. And pass-catcher Michael Irvin needled the opposition, saying of Deion, "He knows the 49ers have some age on them, and [that] we have a bright present and future. He's no dummy."
Neither are the people at Nike, who once persuaded Michael Jordan not to wear what his Olympic teammates wore, and who have now persuaded the Dallas Cowboys not to wear what their NFL brothers wear. Nike is turning the world of sport into its own private Foot Locker.
I don't know if Deion Sanders or anyone else would choose one football team over another because the other team has the wrong tailor. I only know that if Jerry Jones keeps having his way, he will probably sell advertising space on the shorts of his cheerleaders.