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Colin Kaepernick’s Nike sponsorship shows that athletes have more power than they realize

Social justice isn’t just part of the contract. It’s the whole point of it.

People walk by a Nike advertisement featuring Colin Kaepernick on display in New York. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

Tra­di­tion­al­ly, ath­let­ic spon­sor­ship deals go some­thing like this: A shoe com­pany gives an ath­lete mon­ey. In ex­change, the ath­lete suits up in that com­pany’s gear and trans­forms into a slam dunk­ing, touch­down scor­ing, buzz­er-beat­ing advertisement for its pro­ducts. No star has filled that role more ti­di­ly than Mi­chael Jordan, whose iconic sil­hou­ette still adorns Nike’s pro­ducts more than 15 years af­ter his re­tire­ment.

Colin Kaepernick’s re­cent­ly re­vealed spon­sor­ship deal with Nike casts a­side this sim­plis­tic for­mu­la and of­fers a new path for­ward for ath­letes and the shoe com­panies that spon­sor them. The deal is con­tro­ver­sial, yes, but it also dem­on­strates some­thing im­port­ant: Ath­letes have more pow­er than they re­al­ize if they want to en­cour­age com­panies to do the right thing. Social jus­tice isn’t just part of the Nike-Kaepernick con­tract. It's the whole point of it. In­deed, he shows that his fel­low athletes might ap­proach their con­tracts as col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ner­ships, and not just pas­sive spon­sor­ship.

Nike signed Kaepernick, who had already been un­der con­tract with the com­pany since 2011, as one of the faces of its new cam­paign to mark 30 years of Just Do It. A mar­ket­ing cam­paign to cele­brate the anniversary of a mar­ket­ing cam­paign — quintessentially Nike. (Dis­clo­sure: I had a Nike en­dorse­ment dur­ing my own ca­reer as a pro­fes­sion­al run­ner.) The deal reported­ly in­cludes a Kaepernick shoe and shirt, and the com­mit­ment from Nike to con­tri­bute funds to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights camps, which hark­ back to the Black Pan­thers’ youth and com­muni­ty work­shops and pro­vide in­for­ma­tion on educa­tion­al path­ways, self-em­pow­er­ment and how best to inter­act with law en­force­ment. This is what’s most novel a­bout the deal, and where the po­ten­tial for some­thing tru­ly in­no­va­tive lies. Nike could have paid a lot of mon­ey to Kaepernick, who then could chan­nel those funds into so­cial jus­tice caus­es. In­stead, the com­pany is re­port­ed­ly do­nat­ing di­rect­ly, as part of the con­trac­tu­al ob­li­ga­tion with Kaepernick.

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Kaepernick has re­mained rel­a­tive­ly si­lent, so we do not know yet if this i­de­a was Nike’s or Kaepernick’s. But it doesn’t mat­ter. Even if Nike pitched the i­de­a, Kaepernick chose to act, to a­lign his ef­forts with one of the world’s larg­est apparel companies. Even as ath­letes press the body to its lim­its, we too of­ten think of them as pas­sive when they’re off the field, court or pitch — act­ed upon, giv­en things and told what to do by com­panies. And many do, hap­py to take the mon­ey and gear.

Nike chose Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces for a new ad campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. (Video: Taylor Turner, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

But as Kaepernick, now bet­ter known for his ac­tiv­ism than his per­form­ance, shows, they don’t have to be: Most ath­let­ic gear com­panies already have so­cial com­mit­ments, but those in­itia­tives of­ten lack fo­cus or a real raison d’etre. Ac­cord­ing­ly, the ath­letes they spon­sor are un­com­mon­ly well po­si­tioned to play a role, help­ing di­rect funds to their fa­vored caus­es, while also am­pli­fy­ing pub­lic at­ten­tion.

Nike, like vir­tu­al­ly every For­tune 500 com­pany, has a char­i­ta­ble arm with com­muni­ty grants and pro­grams, but its commitment to an in­di­vid­u­al ath­lete’s per­son­al char­i­ta­ble work might be un­prec­e­dent­ed. That’s not to say the com­pany hasn’t been work­ing with ath­letes on a vari­ety of so­cial jus­tice caus­es. But these ef­forts fall more in line with tra­di­tion­al communi­ty out­reach pro­grams or­gan­ized by com­panies. For ex­am­ple, Nike’s N7 pro­gram fo­cus­es on ser­ving Native American and in­dig­e­nous com­mu­ni­ties, blend­ing health and well-be­ing ed­u­ca­tion and re­sources, ath­let­ic shoe and ap­par­el dona­tions, and com­pe­ti­tive grant pro­grams. N7 am­bas­sa­dors — Nike spon­sored in­dig­e­nous ath­letes — vol­un­teer in vari­ous out­reach ef­forts, and wear and pro­mote spe­cial­ly de­signed N7 col­lec­tion shoes and ap­par­el cele­brat­ing in­dig­e­nous ar­tis­tic de­signs.

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Re-sign­ing Kaepernick and mak­ing him the face and voice of the 30th anniversary Just Do It cam­paign might be of a piece with those endeavors, but it also builds on oth­er ef­forts that fo­cus more di­rect­ly on in­di­vid­u­al per­son­ali­ties. Past ad campaigns have cele­brat­ed hijab-wear­ing skate­board­ing and fig­ure-skat­ing girls, and most re­cent­ly sup­port­ed Serena Williams and her catsuit, in de­fi­ance of the French Open’s old guard. In ad­di­tion to Kaepernick and Williams, Nike ath­letes include Le­Bron James, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Rich­ard Sherman, Meg­an Rapinoe and Maya Moore. (Tell­ing­ly, many of these stor­ies and fig­ures fea­ture in the two-min­ute “Believe in some­thing” ad­ver­tise­ment that Kaepernick tweeted Wednes­day, a por­tion of which will air dur­ing the tel­e­cast of the first game of the NFL regu­lar sea­son Thurs­day.) These are ac­tiv­ist ath­letes who speak and work on issues in­clud­ing police bru­tal­i­ty, sys­tem­ic ra­cial in­e­qual­i­ty, Islam­o­phobia, anti-im­mi­grant poli­cies, gender in­e­qual­i­ty, ho­mo­pho­bi­a and transphobia.

The real les­son, though, might be for those whose names we don’t know yet. New pro ath­letes sign­ing en­dorse­ment contracts are ex­cit­ed to wear the Nike swoosh, Adidas’s three stripes or re­al­ly any logo. From here on out, though, they have the op­por­tu­ni­ty to put their own brand on those com­panies, whether or not they re­al­ize it yet. Thanks to Kaepernick and Nike, we now know the ath­lete’s re­la­tion­ship with any com­pany can have so­cial jus­tice work built right into the con­tract.

Read more:

Nike isn’t try­ing to be ‘woke.’ It’s try­ing to sell shoes.

Trump prom­ised black voters equal jus­tice. That’s all Kaepernick wants.

How the NFL watered down Colin Kaepernick’s protest