The spectacle surrounding Nike’s new ad campaign distracts from its lack of political structure.
Grab your torches and pitchforks and strap in, everybody; it’s time for another article on Colin Kaepernick. Over the past two years, ever since the former 49ers quarterback first took a knee during the national anthem and became one of the most controversial people in the country, he has been dissected from every possible angle. You’ve heard about how he disrespected our flag and our military, how he took a stand against injustice, how he’s been blacklisted from the NFL and how he’s a no-talent bum who should never have had a starting job in the first place (easily my favorite argument since it comes almost exclusively from those who don’t actually follow football). My point is, it seemed like the story had been played out. But luckily for avid debaters like me, Nike decided to throw their hat into the ring.
You’ve probably heard by now that Nike, the world’s largest supplier of athletic apparel, decided to base their 30th anniversary campaign of the “Just Do It” slogan around Kaepernick, featuring him prominently in ads alongside other socially conscious athletes and rags-to-riches success stories. You’ve also probably heard that there’s been quite a backlash to this from the mouthbreathers of the world, those self-righteous buffoons who take such umbrage with a silent, non-violent protest that they would rather destroy their Nike gear than be seen supporting a company that hates ‘Murica.
This won’t be an article criticizing folks like that because there’s not much more that needs to be said about them; they are firmly on the wrong side of history and will be remembered as ignorant bigots. Rather, I’d like to take what I think is a more interesting approach and discuss Nike’s decision to take such an ostensibly risky political stance on this hot-button issue.
To sum it up for you, I don’t like it. I don’t like how late they are to the game in supporting Kaepernick, who has remained under contract with Nike for the duration of his absence from the NFL. I don’t like lauding a calculated business decision for being brave when it was expected to (and has) brought about a financial windfall. I don’t like the phoniness of a corporation pretending to care about social inequity when it employs sweatshop labor in East Asia. And I don’t like the fact that under everyone’s noses, Nike hijacked the issues of police brutality and institutional racism to become just another tool for their marketers to use to sell their crappy shoes. Let’s go through this piece by piece.
Kaepernick has been endorsed by Nike since 2011, when he was first drafted into the NFL (and a year before he led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl, a fun tidbit the “He always sucked” crowd seems to forget). But over the past two years, despite his jersey sales going through the roof, despite being talked about more than any other American athlete this side of LeBron James, the company has done nothing to indicate any support. No endorsement of his position, no feature in any advertising, not even so much as a statement to show that they at least stand by the First Amendment right of their man to do as he pleases. And yet here we are two years later, with the tide of public opinion — particularly in the mainstream media and sports fandom — fully on their side, that Nike finally decides to take a stand. Why now? You can bet it’s because their market research finally said it was the time to strike.
It was easy to get caught up in Trump’s critical tweets and Fox News’s hysterical coverage of their viewers’ Tiki-torch-lighting auditions and think that this was going to be a risky move on Nike’s part. Indeed, their stock took a significant hit in the first few days after the campaign was launched, lending some credence to that argument. Well, guess what’s happened in the two weeks since? Their shares are valued at an all-time high, sales have increased by more than 30 percent and they’ve gained nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram. Seems like they’re doing pretty well!
I want to be clear here, my issue is not simply that Nike is making money; they are a corporation, and it is their prerogative to seek a profit however they can within the confines of the law. But nothing about this decision was courageous and worthy of praise, at least any more than is already heaped on them for being legendary advertisers capable of capturing the zeitgeist like few other businesses. Furthermore, when a move like this is so obviously made for money, it begs the question of what will happen when such a course of action is no longer financially viable. Actually, scratch that, we already know the answer to that question! They will return to being totally silent on the issue, as they were for the past two years.
After all, when has Nike ever been one to put social good before profits? For nearly 50 years, the company has faced criticism for employing sweatshop labor in its manufacturing plants in countries like China, Vietnam and Indonesia, varying their stated position from one of outright denial to a lack of control over the actions of subcontracted factories. They continue to operate in these countries, taking full advantage of looser labor laws and engaging workers for longer hours and cheaper pay than they would be allowed in America.
And while advocacy groups have pointed to these issues for as long as they have existed, there has never been enough pressure from consumers to prompt Nike to give up this unethical practice. Social good is not a concern for them, only the bottom line.
Even so, one might argue that it is unfair to ask anybody or anything to be a perfect beacon of morality, that it is possible for Nike to still be in the wrong while making the right decision in the case of Kaepernick. And this is technically true, it is certainly possible to make positive strides without redressing all wrongs. But are they really doing a social good with this new ad campaign?
Ask yourself what lies at the heart of the Kaepernick-kneeling issue. Again, as long as you’re not a conspiracy theorist who believes the answer is “Hating America,” you know that he was trying to bring attention to racism and misuse of power by law enforcement. I’m curious … how many references to these things were made in the two-minute commercial that kicked off the campaign? How many seconds did Kap spend addressing them in his voiceover narration? How many images did we get of fellow players kneeling in solidarity?
The answer to all these questions is the same, and it rhymes with “hero.” You know, heroes — like what LeBron James is for opening a school, or Serena Williams for coming out of Compton to become the GOAT, or Kaepernick himself, for becoming a martyr. Confused? That’s the point. Sure, this ad is about great athletes doing great things, and it urges future generations to strive for similar success in familiar generic platitudes. You know what it’s not about? Racism, police brutality, the very things that Colin Kaepernick knelt for and that Nike is pretending to endorse.
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” is the slogan of the campaign, slapped over Kaepernick’s furrowed brow on billboards. What did he sacrifice exactly? I won’t pretend that it’s been easy for the man, having faced constant criticism and harassment over the past two years and unable to play the game he loves (for reasons of legitimate collusion or otherwise), but let’s not make him too much of a victim. He’s got more star power and name recognition than he’s ever had, raking in millions in endorsement deals as the new face of the world’s biggest sports brand. What a horrible existence! And lost in all this is the original issue that he was trying to bring to light.
This was never supposed to be about Colin Kaepernick; it was supposed to be about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher. If Nike really cared, faces like theirs would have been the stars of the campaign, or at the very least the images of the players who knelt to honor them.
It’s possible I’m being too harsh in my criticism, that all of this outrage should be reserved for the Neanderthals like our president who want the likes of Nike and Kaepernick burned at the stake. I’ll concede that the simple act of featuring Kap has the chance to increase awareness for his cause even with the purposeful misdirection of the ad, and I suppose it’s better that they acknowledge his existence now than never. All I want is to help people think about the intentions of the forces at work here and to remind them that this ad should not, cannot, be the end of the discussion. Dispense with the platitudes. Even if Nike would rather not show them, the problems are still out there, and they deserve our attention.