Nike chairman and co-founder Phil Knight, who has been called the most powerful man in sports, hinted on Tuesday that a possible reunion with disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong should not be ruled out.
"Never say never," a smiling Knight said when a TMZ reporter asked if there was any chance Armstrong and Nike would "reunite." The media-shy leader was at a conference at the Brookings Institution in Washington Tuesday, The New York Daily Newswrites.
When asked if Knight was waiting for an apology from Armstrong's interview with Oprah Winfrey that will air Thursday and Friday in which he admits to his doping past, Knight said: "No, we don't have any plans. I don't know what he's going to say." .
Nike stands by fallen athletes
Even as other sponsors shunned them, Nike has a record of standing by athletes whose reputations have been shattered, Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant among them. Nike cut its ties to Michael Vick, who was convicted of participating in a dogfighting ring, but re-signed him after he returned to the N.F.L.
Over the years, despite the mounting doping accusations against Armstrong, the company stood by the one-time icon as he fended them off. In 2009, Nike put together a TV commercial with the Lance Armstrong Foundation titled "Driven," (shown below) in which Armstrong shoots back at his critics.
"The critics says I’m arrogant, a doper and washed up, a fraud. That I couldn’t let it go," the Armstrong voice over says. "They can say whatever they want. I’m not back on my bike for them."
And in May 2011, a day after "60 Minutes" aired an shocking interview with Tyler Hamilton, an ex-teammate of Armstrong who said he witnessed the Texan take performance-enhancing drugs while with the U.S. Postal team, Nike publicly came to Armstrong's defense.
"Our relationship with Lance remains as strong as ever," the company toldThe Hollywood Reporter in a statement. "We are proud to work with him and support his foundation. Nike does not condone the use of banned substances and Lance has been unwavering on that position as well." (Interview clip shown below)
In October 2012, when the United States Anti-Doping Agency made public its damning report laying out Armstrong's long doping history, saying he was a ringleader of an organized doping program on his Tour de France-winning teams, Armstrong's main sponsor continue to back him. "We are saddened that Lance Armstrong may no longer be able to participate in certain competitions and his titles appear to be impacted," a statement from Nike read.
"Lance has stated his innocence and has been unwavering on this position. Nike plans to continue to support Lance and the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a foundation that Lance created to serve cancer survivors."
Then, a week later, Nike dropped Armstrong. “Due to the seemingly insurmountable evidence that Lance Armstrong participated in doping and misled Nike for more than a decade, it is with great sadness that we have terminated our contract with him,” the company said in a statement.
“Nike does not condone the use of illegal performance enhancing drugs in any manner.”
Now months later, Knight called Armstrong's upcoming confession "an unpleasant surprise." He said Armstrong's use of performance-enhancing drugs to win "makes me sad." Knight added that he'll tune in to the highly anticipated interview.