Nike Just Thrust Kaepernick Back in the Spotlight – Where He Belongs
The 2018 National Football League regular season kicks off this week. And the most discussed player in the world of football, and beyond, is one that has been ousted from the NFL for over a year: Colin Kaepernick.
One week before the first NFL Sunday of the year, Nike rolled out a preview of its 30th anniversary Just Do It ad. This year its signature campaign featured the face of none other than Kaepernick, untouched and unfiltered, with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The image was striking, but the nine words far more. It brought to attention the embattled quarterback’s stance against police violence and institutional racism, which began two seasons ago when Kaepernick started kneeling on the field during the national anthem.
The image of Kaepernick’s protest is forever embedded in the memory of NFL fans everywhere, as well as the NFL brass who ousted him after a fine 2016 season. However, the last time Kaepernick suited up for an NFL contest and took a knee was 1 January 2017, just over two weeks before Donald Trump was inaugurated president of the United States and 10 months before Kaepernick filed a collusion case against the NFL. This is a lifetime for millions upon millions of NFL fans, who just drafted their fantasy football teams and are gearing up for week 1.
Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s North America vice-president for brand marketing, told ESPN: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” With its new ad, Nike has thrust Kaepernick – and the professional sacrifice he made for his political beliefs – back into the center of football and broader political conversation.
Instantly, casual fans, diehard NFL backers and activists were back at it, questioning why a quarterback, still relatively young for the position (30 years old) and having competed a good 2016 season (16 touchdowns versus only four interceptions), was being locked out of the league. The ad gave new legs to arguments made last year, when it became clear that Kaepernick was being denied the opportunity to compete for an NFL roster spot because of his protest. Pro-Kaepernick NFL fans questioned why other journeymen quarterbacks were being signed to extended contracts, statistically inferior backups were still circulating through the league and, in the case of Nathan Peterman, signal callers that threw more interceptions in one game than Kaepernick did in the entire 2016 season were named starting quarterbacks.
In addition to inspiring Kaepernick supporters, the Nike ad has also emboldened his critics, some of whom have announced they will boycott Nike for its backing of Kaepernick. Some went beyond a boycott, choosing to burn their Nike shoes, socks and clothing, and othersare allegedly “switching their allegiances to Adidas, Brooks or Converse” – which is owned by Nike. The fervor on both sides of the divide illustrates that the Kaepernick debate is still very much alive – and, by sticking by the quarterback, Nike has aligned itself with Kaepernick.
But let’s be clear. Nike knows that the NFL, and its fanbase, is polarized along a number of lines, especially political ones. It also knows that the NFL, which is steered by predominantly white and politically conservative owners, has a player base that is nearly 80% black and predominantly left-leaning, and is at a critical impasse. This racial divide within the league, coupled with head trauma controversies and a militant culture that suppresses expression and individuality among its players, has marred NFL’s identity. In addition, its most public and marketable figures represent what is most damning about the league – carefully packaged personas, devoid of personality and intolerant of individuality. This is why Jalen Ramsey’s brutally honest interview with GQ magazine was so refreshing, and why Nike stuck with and showcased Kaepernick in its most important ad campaign – because he remains, even while formally out of football, the most powerful and transcendent face of the sport.
Nike knows a winner when it sees one. A winner that will not only resonate in the market in the form of shoe and apparel sales, but a symbol that represents a sport at the crossroads. With its new ad, Kaepernick is more than just the face of Nike. He remains the face of the very league that blacklisted him, and an ever-looming and potent reminder of the unfairness of NFL’s zero-tolerance policy against athletes, particularly black athletes, that use their platforms to protest against the ubiquitous injustices plaguing black communities.
Kaepernick and all he represents will be on the minds of fans watching, and those abstaining from watching, football this weekend, and throughout the 2018 regular season. Nike’s ad will be played and replayed and showcased globally on billboards and social media spots: it will serve as a ubiquitous reminder of Kaepernick’s sacrifice, but just as importantly, the injustice the NFL served upon him.
Khaled A Beydoun is a law professor, and author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear