From the moment Colin Kaepernick unceremoniously knelt during the National Anthem of an NFL preseason game in the waning days of Summer 2016, there has been nothing short of public outcry.
Kaepernick’s activism transcends sport; his every move is now scrutinized by conservative media outlets and, correspondingly, the President of the United States.
To many conservatives—a faction sliding closer to white nationalism every day—there is almost nothing that better epitomizes the decline of so-called American values than a Black man, donning an Afro, kneeling for an anthem written by the oh-so-patriotic-slaveowner Francis Scott Key.
A discussion of the symbolic significance of the anthem and the flag is likely in order, but I’ll leave that conversation on the sidelines. For now, let’s simply acknowledge the period ranging from Aug. 14, 2016, to Sept. 3, 2018, as a period defined by the radical political activism of a Black man on America’s largest stage in sport, and the corresponding “whitelash” conducted by those reactionaries on the political right. Let’s also define the period between January 2017 and this very moment as a period in which Colin Kaepernick—a man certainly talented enough to hold an NFL roster spot—was blackballed by the NFL. That’s our baseline.
On September 3, Nike released its newest advertisement campaign. In all likelihood, you’ve seen it. The coverboy? Colin Kaepernick. His unedited face is set in sharp black and white. Plopped atop is a customarily tight, pre-packaged, retweet-ready slogan in a font only slightly more ambitious than Times New Roman: “Believe in something. Even it means sacrificing everything.”
Kaepernick serving as Nike’s coverboy for their 30th-anniversary “Just Do It” campaign is a very real paradigm shift. He has been one of the most public faces of anti-racist activism, avidly and persuasively denouncing police brutality and race- based inequality, while simultaneously donating more than $1 million to progressive organizations.
And yet, as of Sept. 3, he has become perhaps the most highlighted athlete in the celebration of a multinational corporation’s 30 years of vicious, profit-hungry production. The tensions bubbling through the surface of Nike’s Kaepernick-defined, glossy facade are palpable.
Kaepernick sacrificed his NFL career for the sake of a cause. Guided by conversations he had with those most acquainted with political activism in sport, like Harry Edwards, Kaepernick described his cause carefully and powerfully. When asked about the reasoning behind his protest in its early days, Kaepernick stated: “I’m going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there’s significant change and I feel that flag represents what it’s supposed to represent, and this country is rep- resenting people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.” He went on, “This stand wasn’t for me. This is because I’m seeing things happen to people that don’t have a voice, people that don’t have a platform to talk and have their voices heard, and effect change. So I’m in the position where I can do that and I’m going to do that for people that can’t” (Cbssports, “Colin Kaepernick: I’ll keep sitting for anthem until meaningful change occurs,” 08.28.2016).
In his aptly titled article “On Colin Kaepernick’s Nike Ad: Will the Revolution Be Branded?,” The Nation’s sports editor, Dave Zirin, notes, “Nike has been for decades a target of protests by student activists, with organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops on the front lines, for notoriously poor labor practices.”
He goes on to highlight: “Earlier this year, the company was accused [in a New York Times exposé] of fostering a sexist work environment with chronic harassment.” Even at the very top of Nike, reminds Zirin, there is Chairman Phil Knight, who just last year gave $500,000 to Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler (The Nation, “On Colin Kaepernick’s Nike Ad: Will the Revolution Be Branded?, 09.04.2018). As an Oregonian, I can humbly attest that Knute Buehler’s name is seriously indicative of how cool Knute Buehler is.
The oppressive status quo embellishes Nike’s bottom line. Indeed, caught in the cross- hairs of a company that has no consequential qualms about the effects of structural racism, globalization, patriarchy and class hierarchy are 1 million-plus employees occupying the space of both capital and labor for one of the world’s most powerful corporations.
Nike’s motivations are transparent. As Fox Sports analyst Nick Wright put it, “Nike is making a bet that history will judge [Kaepernick] much more favorably than he’s being judged right now. And they want to be on the right side of that history” (Twitter, @FTFonFS1, 09.04.2018).
The right side of history is not one, for Nike, defined by moral righteousness or standing with oppressed peoples. The right side of history, for Nike, is the side of history with the most valuable stocks. Nike’s online sales saw a 31 percent increase the day after the release of Kaepernick’s ad.
Kaepernick now kneels not on the sidelines of an NFL team but instead on a thin line of righteous activism and corporate sponsorship. As Zirin notes, Nike advertises that Kaepernick is “moving the world forward.” That sounds much more like a vacuous talking point chiseled from the pumice of a recent neoliberal Presidential campaign than the radical message Kaepernick has advocated.
This whitewashing of Kaepernick’s message is unsurprising and in lockstep with grander corporate appeals to a younger, more progressive generation, as Ben Carrington and Jules Boycoff note in The Guardian. “[Kaepernick’s partnership with Nike] is also a reminder,” they write, “that late-modern capitalism can embrace and even promote radical, chic rhetoric as long as it does not call into question the ideology of capitalism itself” (The Guardian, “Is Colin Kaepernick’s Nike deal activism – or just capitalism?, 09.06.2018).
For Kaepernick, Nike’s business decision to make him their coverboy is a victory—it’s meritocratic validation of a years-long pursuit for place. But I believe, at least for the mo- ment, that it is a pyrrhic victory. At the heart of my skepticism is a fundamental question, a question with which Kaepernick appears to be wrestling: What does it mean to be a financially successful public figure in an intersectionally unequal, imperialist, capitalist society?
Nike’s profitable, milquetoast branding of Colin Kaepernick’s revolutionary activism may provide an answer.