Colin Kaepernick, a tall, lean, biracial athlete, is the most polarizing symbol of racial injustice in American sports today. Scorned by some, but appreciated by many, Kaepernick is being called “the Muhammad Ali of his generation.”
Ali, you may remember, is considered an American hero, not only for his tremendous achievements in the world of boxing and his status as a World Ambassador for the United Nations, but for adamantly protesting America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Upon his death, Ali was eulogized by a former president and hundreds of luminaries and dignitaries from all four corners of the globe.
In September 2016, while playing quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers of the National Football League, Kaepernick, a talented athlete playing a strategic position, knelt during the playing of the national anthem. This simple and silent gesture, he explained, was meant as a protest against social injustice—the deaths of so many African-American boys and men at the hands of police. However, by season’s end, Kaepernick would not only find himself out of a job and scorned by the league, but exiled to the scrapheap of sports martyrdom, as well.
The NFL, with 32 franchise owners—all white—is considered the most conservative alliance of leaders in American sports. Games are full of patriotic observances, while players in the league—the vast majority of whom are African-American—are forbidden from demonstrating any sort of individuality or distinctiveness.
As the wave of on-field protests emulating Kaepernick amplified last year, President Trump entered the fray, declaring that “Any player who doesn’t stand for the anthem isn’t just a son of a bitch, they shouldn’t be in the country.” Indeed, these players were protesting the racially biased administration of justice that Trump personifies.
Living in New York these past two years, Kaepernick has stayed, for the most part, out of the limelight, ensuring that the conversation is focused on the issues he has raised and not on him.
That was until last week, when the former star quarterback signed a multiyear deal with Nike=one of the country’s largest sportswear manufacturers—to be the 30th anniversary face of the sports apparel company’s “Just Do It” campaign.
Nike will produce new Kaepernick apparel, including a shoe and a T-shirt. Should the merchandise sell well, the value of the deal could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, rivaling that of other top players. Nike has also announced that it will donate money to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” campaign.
Featuring a black-and-white photograph of Kaepernick kneeling, the ad reads: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The reaction to the new Nike campaign was immediate. Thousands of tweets appeared on Twitter condemning Nike; videos appeared on YouTube almost immediately of consumers burning their sneakers and T-shirts, or cutting Nike’s famous icon—the swoosh, off the top of their socks.
Last Friday, Kaepernick received a standing ovation from the crowd at the U.S. Open match between Serena Williams and Venus Williams. Both Williams sisters, along with LeBron James and Odell Beckham, will also highlight Nike’s “Just Do It” anniversary campaign.
This choice by Nike to spotlight Kaepernick—a black man surrounded by controversy as he confronts racial injustice—is a big deal. And, adding other black athletes to the campaign, those who are also challenging the racial inequities they have faced during their careers, is also a very big deal. No other major company I know of has had the guts to stake its profits on public figures involved in such a controversial issue.
Let’s hope others follow in Nike’s lead.