From a kneeling quarterback ostracized from the sport he loves, to the face of the largest global sport apparel company in the word, Colin Kaepernick is arguably the most polarising American athlete of his generation. Whilst he may be a beloved hero to some and a political pariah to others, through his deafening silence he has undoubtedly grown into one of the most influential figures in sports. Like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson before him, Kaepernick has entered the rarefied company of legends who risked everything to make a difference and stand up for what they believe in.
Kaepernick’s moment of courage transcended the realms of sport and competition and undeniably altered the discourse of race, culture and politics in America
One week before the launch of the 2018 National Football League season, Nike dropped a preview of its 30th anniversary advert honouring its iconic slogan: Just Do It. In a move that might be its most controversial yet, the company announced Kaepernick as the face of the campaign in a lucrative deal worth millions of dollars. The image was striking and bold, but what resonated and captured the imagination of the masses was its potently candid and inspiring message underneath: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The statement sheds light on the quarterback’s notorious decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against unarmed African Americans and institutional racism. Ostensibly, the premise that police violence against unarmed people of colour is unjustified should seem straightforward, but in reality it has triggered complex, underlying racial and political anxieties simmering at the heart of American society. In an era of divisive ideological sensibilities and enhanced racial tensions, Kaepernick’s moment of courage transcended the realms of sport and competition and undeniably altered the discourse of race, culture and politics in America.
Several people have taken issue with the nature of this protest. Kaepernick has been accused of being unpatriotic, anti-military and a disruptive self-aggrandizing narcissist. President Trump stoked the fires of this situation by calling for such protestors to be fired from the NFL and cited the Nike deal as sending “a terrible message.” Consequently, Nike’s gamble on Kaepernick potentially risks alienating a large section of the fan base who perceive the athlete’s actions as disrespectful. Although inspiring, the ad campaign has driven many critics to the extent of publicly burning their Nike branded apparel.
The saga illuminates the systemic fractures within the bureaucratic hierarchy of the NFL
Intriguingly, this partnership not only re-ignites the socio-political debate, but places the NFL in an uncomfortable position as a major partner of Nike while simultaneously being sued by Kaepernick. He accuses the league’s 32 teams of colluding to not offer him a contract because of his on-field demonstrations. Fundamentally, the saga illuminates the systemic fractures within the bureaucratic hierarchy of the NFL, whose business policy of appeasing white right-wing political forces sets a dangerous precedent. This is an organization at a critical impasse. It is typified by its militant culture that seeks to suppress expression, individuality and personality – characteristics that have largely shaped the NFL’s identity for a number of years now. In this context, Kaepernick’s endorsement deal is a pivotal moment for the culture. Kaepernick’s global showcase on a stage that transcends the routine of sport is crucial in moving the conversation of racial and identity politics forward.
However, the timing of this partnership announcement was unprecedented and alarming to many industry veterans. Nike are by no means the idealistic, moral and ethical saviours they may like to portray themselves as. They have explicitly capitalized and exploited the political unrest and its associated explosion of popular interest in this issue to advance their own economic incentives. Multi-billion dollar companies are by nature aggressively amoral, prioritizing profit over social justice. According to Listen First, a social media analytics company, Kaepernick’s announcement of the partnership attracted over 1 million responses on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The potential marketability and attention associated with Kaepernick and his fight against racial oppression is self-evident. As Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at the NPD group commented, “I think Nike knew exactly what they were doing, with the intention that some people would be offended.” Despite Kaepernick being contracted to the company since 2011, they declined to use him in any marketing campaigns till now. Ethics and moral responsibility do not tend to be priorities for a company accused of exploitation of sweatshop conditions and accusations of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment in the workplace. Nike may be on the right side of history in this case, but they’re a little late.
Nevertheless, as the face of the very league that ostracized him, this groundbreaking deal is essential in elevating the importance of Kaepernick’s unjust treatment and the centrality of race relations into the public eye. In the mould of Muhammad Ali and Rosa Parks, Kaepernick is well and truly a transcendent figure and significant symbol in the fight for civil rights. Ultimately, this story is not one about money and sport. This is a story about a man, who by silently taking a knee, sacrificed his dreams to stand up for what he believes is right; who put everything at stake to confront a country that is not holding itself true to the principles it says it stands for. The real heroes are not Nike or the NFL, but those like Kaepernick who stand up for what they believe in, even if they’re standing alone.