Nike took a bold stance this past weekend by introducing the latest face of its brand: former NFL player (and current free agent) Colin Kaepernick.
This divisive choice made a statement about where they stand on the right to protest and who they see themselves as a company. This, naturally, infuriated the Far Right, who has traditionally been opposed to the “Take a Knee” NFL protests Kaepernick pioneered.
I think it’s worth looking back on Kaepernick’s choices and contextualizing the why behind NFL players protesting.
It is undeniable (and I cite facts, here, much to the chagrin of some people) that the black community, particularly black men, are disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system, be it the high rates of jail to actual, unarmed, well-documented shootings from police officers. This alone is cause for outrage – our government is not protecting and serving all communities equally, and social media has only served to highlight this to a more public audience.
Kaepernick decided to do something about it, reflecting on how to respectfully protest this injustice, and received advice from a former army veteran on the “right” way to respectfully protest during a national anthem. Nate Boyer told Kaepernick, “Maybe there’s a different way of demonstrating (than sitting during the anthem), where you’re showing more respect for those who laid down their lives for what that flag and anthem stand for,” Boyer said of his conversation with Kaepernick. “I suggested kneeling, because people kneel to pray; we’ll kneel in front of a fallen brother’s grave.”
Here's the rub: to put it bluntly, Donald Trump didn’t like it and riled up his base. Trump and his base allegedly found the action to be unpatriotic and disrespectful, but I have to disagree. I can think of nothing more patriotic than a peaceful protest, particularly one that is protesting the unequal treatment of any marginalized group. Kaepernick was using his public platform to make a statement, respectfully and quietly. Is that not the entire point of a protest? To draw public attention to an injustice?
Nike has decided to take this mantle and run with it for its ad campaign. In treading ground that could have been considered appropriation or capitalization, they highlighted Kaepernick’s contributions respectfully and brilliantly. They walked that beautiful line between sensitive and opportunistic. And they risked a lot to do it.
Most striking to me is that Nike had at one time alienated a lot of human rights activists in 2005, mainly through the exposure of its factory conditions. This led to many on the Left turning away from the company. Nike must have recognized that it now risked alienating some of its customers who had stuck with it through that difficult period. They pursued the Kaepernick campaign anyway, largely on principle. Despite the “burning of the Nike socks” that inevitably resulted, I suspect they will see a large uptick in sales from the Leftward citizens who have proven time and again they put their money where their mouths are (see: Ivanka Trump’s failed fashion line).
Honestly, as a marketer myself, I realize there were some selfish reasons behind this choice: Nike’s demographics have become increasingly minority-led, and this move to include Kaepernick in its campaign was undoubtedly calculated in and of itself. But what better way to pursue a selfish goal than by highlighting an unselfish act? A peaceful protest that defended the very people Nike cares most about for its bottom line? Does that make them smart or considerate? And what’s wrong with being both?
I think Beto O’Rourke stated my feelings best, so I need not restate the obvious when I have a perfect speech to link to. Protest is beautiful and one of the most patriotic acts we can make. Our forefathers would be proud to see Kaepernick fighting for the right for all men to be treated equally. And I think most of them would even be proud that Nike was leveraging that to make money.
What an interesting parallel we have drawn between democracy and Capitalism.
God bless the USA.
Beto O’Rourke’s speech: