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Kaepernick and Nike: it’s the message not the merch

Alex Kerner

September 9, 2018

Last week, after over a year in NFL wilderness, Colin Kaepernick, the former Super Bowl starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, was revealed as the front person for Nike’s latest campaign. Within hours, twitter was alight in responses to the “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” tagline attached to a photo of Kaepernick, with the iconic Nike swoosh underneath the slogan.

Resistance and reaction

Almost two years ago, Kaepernick launched a national conversation when he began kneeling during the national anthem before football games. As a high profile player, he used his position to protest police brutality and violence against African Americans, stating that: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football, and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

Kaepernick faced immediate criticism from right wing voices and police forces, who argued that he was disrespecting the flag and being unpatriotic. Nonetheless, he continued his protest and slowly more players joined in solidarity.

When the 2016-2017 season came to an end, however, Kaepernick faced free agency and was unable to find a team willing to sign him, despite his statistics being significantly better than many other quarterbacks able to get signed.

Unsigned but not deterred, Kaepernick continued to speak out, donating significant amounts of money to charity and working on programs for at risk youth.

His resilience did not impress the growing voices of reaction in the United States, with President Donald Trump going on a tirade against him and his actions at a (hate) rally in September 2017, saying that he would have fired Kaepernick and “get that son of a bitch off the field.” This provoked players across the league to protest Trump’s racist attacks against Kaepernick.

Many suspected that teams were not signing Kaepernick out of fear of provoking Trump and his base, which increased many suspicions that franchise owners were colluding to not sign him. As a result, Kaepernick filed a lawsuit against the league. After discovery, the league attempted to have the suit dismissed, with the overseeing judge rejecting this effort last month and allowing the case to go to trial.

Nike debates

It’s in this context that Kaepernick revealed to the world his new role with Nike and the campaign that appeared to embrace his radical protest against police violence. Nike had kept him on their payroll since leaving the 49ers and had been waiting for the right time to launch a campaign with him as their spokesperson. Within days a three minute campaign video was launched with Kaepernick narrating. 

As right wing forces broke down crying on-line and began burning their (already paid for) Nike merchandise, many on the left have had mixed reaction. On the one hand, this appeared like a huge victory for Kaepernick and the cause he embraced. He had given up his place as an NFL quarterback for the fight against police brutality. On the other hand, this was Nike, a company known for sneakers and for sweatshop conditions of workers making them. How can we embrace the latter?

Although Nike’s labour issues are an ongoing issue that should not disappear from the left’s radar, to dismiss their endorsement of Kaepernick just as a get-rich-quick campaign would be a mistake.

Firstly, that Nike is taking a risk on Kaepernick, knowing that it would produce controversy, speaks to the broad support the sidelined quarterback has across American society. His year of protest saw his jersey hit number one in sales and it continues to be in the top 50 after over a year not playing. Many players and fans continue to be on his side and will see a huge campaign featuring Kaepernick as a vindication of his message.

Secondly, Kaepernick also took a huge risk by putting his politics front and centre in his campaign for justice. He has been permanently ostracized and unable to find employment. That he has been given a lifeline to continue speaking out against injustice and racist policing needs to be cheered on.

Lastly, this is a huge setback for the NFL, a league more comfortable with domestic abusers and racists being the faces of franchises than having someone with a radical message kneeling on the sideline. In the midst of a lawsuit that could cost them millions, their official apparel maker has sided with Kaepernick. That speaks to how weak, cowardly and reactionary the league appears.

And it actually opens up space to discuss and debate the Nike question. Resistance to the ills of capitalist society sometimes is messy and raises tactical questions and disagreements not easily resolved. I think we can and should press Kaepernick to also push for better labour conditions for those making his jerseys and making the shoes. But right now we need to also celebrate that – despite the conspiracy of reaction to silence Kaepernick led by Trump but followed by NFL owners – his voice has remained strong and will continue to haunt those guilty of abuse, profiling and murder. 

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