A few months ago, Colin Kaepernick seemed to be back in the game. Though he hadn’t yet found a team willing to break the NFL’s apparent blackballing of the activist-athlete, he had scored an important victory as the star of a new Nike campaign, one that netted Nike $6 billion.
But the Washington Redskins' decision to shun Kaepernick after losing their top two quarterbacks to injury shows that the capitalist battle of the titans between the NFL and Nike isn’t over. And it reveals the limits of Nike’s efforts to rehabilitate Kaepernick — limits that hint at why so few corporations have supported activist-athletes in the past.
Nike’s decision to make Kaepernick the face of its new advertising campaign marks a distinct shift in the relationship among athletes, activism and advertising. The partnership between Nike and Kaepernick flipped the dynamic between athlete activism and capitalism, a force that has been historically oppressive. Companies have long been unwilling to risk alienating customers by endorsing athletes who are politically active, let alone center an advertising campaign on such figures and their activism.
During the civil rights movement, black athletes were politically active at their own financial peril. The rise of conservatism, beginning with Richard Nixon’s emphasis on law and order, helped precipitate a decline in athlete activism. Activists, and especially black activists, were stereotypically associated with the urban riots that shook the country and aided Nixon’s election in 1968.
At the zenith of his career, Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest athlete of the time, notably received few endorsements. Ali’s controversial repudiation of being drafted as a soldier in the Vietnam War in 1968 also led to his exclusion from boxing for three years and the loss of his title. The consequences Ali faced vividly demonstrate the risk athletes take for political activism that could damage them financially in this political climate and even destroy their sports career.
Over the next few decades, African American sports stars such as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jordan were determinedly apolitical, focusing instead on reaping greater financial gains.
As Howard Bryant describes in “The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism,” the 1970s saw athletes' paydays win out over their political stances. Bryant pinpoints the start of this shift to the spectacular success of Simpson’s career as a pitchman, which was later replicated by Jordan. In 1975, Simpson became the first African American spokesman for Hertz rental cars. Simpson’s success helped catalyze a shift in which athletes moved to capitalize on this era of new financial opportunities, causing their political activist peers like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to lose out. Bryant describes athletes like Simpson and Jordan as “greenwashed”: cleansed of anything related to a discussion of racial inequality, in order to sustain their appeal to advertisers and thus their financial success.
Nike played a role in this greenwashing turn in American sports. In 1990, while Jordan was the face of Nike, he shrugged off pressure to support the African American Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina — his home state — purportedly explaining, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” Jordan’s comments came at the same time that Jesse Jackson was spearheading an African-American boycott of Nike products based on the company’s seemingly inequitable hiring practices. By endorsing Jordan, Nike, like other corporations, appeared to reward apolitical athletes and tout a risk-averse policy when determining which athletes would become the face of their next advertising campaign.
The years since 9/11 have reaffirmed sports' and corporations’ aversion to activism and risk. After the 2001 attacks, sports stadiums sought to unite fans with patriotic rigor emphasizing the national anthem and flag. The longevity of the war on terror has made these patriotic rituals a persistent feature in American life, embraced by a slew of corporations, from the NFL to SeaWorld, whose primary focus is entertaining customers.
Yet these rituals are oppressive in their demand for conformity.
The danger in these orgies of patriotic reverence is that they disassociate these symbols from their true meaning. Neither the anthem nor the flag should constitute a loyalty test for patriotism. Instead, these symbols deserve recognition as representative of a nation founded on the principle of free speech.
This heightened politicization of patriotism has further discouraged athletes from participating in any form of activism. The question of the right of NFL players to protest remains unresolved. So far, the 2018 season has demonstrated few players willing to risk their careers by protesting as Kaepernick did. An undisputedly talented athlete, Kaepernick is now taking the NFL to court, arguing that he was blackballed following his infamous protest of police violence during the national anthem in 2016.
Whether Kaepernick’s success in scoring a deal with Nike will embolden further athlete activism is difficult to predict — especially given Washington’s decision to pass on him, despite the outpouring of support he received after the Nike deal. Nevertheless, the visual and financial support Kaepernick is now receiving from Nike is a win against the suppression of athlete activism that coincided with the end of the civil rights movement 50 years ago.
In the 1970s, both the bully pulpit of President Nixon and the almighty dollar united in cultivating the decline of athlete activism. In 2018, the bully pulpit of President Trump now stands in opposition to the almighty dollar of Nike, one of the largest corporations of athletic apparel. Nike’s rising sales now challenge Trump’s continuous authoritarian attacks on the rights of athletes to protest — attacks that not only threaten athletes’ rights to protest, but the rights of us all.