As black America churned a few springs ago in what seemed like a never-ending livestream of unarmed black men being summarily killed by police, Nike issued a statement:
“Nike has no intention to offend anyone, nor to imply that we are insensitive to the serious and important issues between law enforcement and black communities in America. We care about and support efforts to continue discussions to create positive change and bring equality for everyone in our society.”
The statement was in reaction to a #BoycottNike #Don’tDoIt social media campaign that popped up from those seething black communities, which also just happened to be the demographic whose culture Nike heavily appropriated, as onetime Nike executive Larry Miller admitted, to become a multibillion dollar, multinational corporation. With an unarmed black man gunned down by a North Charleston, S.C., police officer after a traffic stop in April 2015 and unarmed Freddie Gray dead in Baltimore after suffering a severed spine in police custody the same month, black America was angered that spring by Nike’s #LawEnforcementAppreciationDay sale, 30 percent off for police.
The inordinate deadly police encounters continued, of course. So, too, did Nike’s discount day for police.
But on Wednesday, Nike teased its new TV ad campaign, which aired Thursday during the NFL’s season opener, featuring the mostly silent, stoic, embodiment of that black disenchantment with policing as the face of the 30th anniversary of its iconic “Just Do It” campaign.
You couldn’t tell that, however, from the images or script of NFL quarterback non grata Colin Kaepernick urging different athletes battling odds before them — Seahawks rookie Shaquem Griffin missing a hand, a triathlete who fought off a brain tumor, a wrestler without legs — to believe in dreams and not be stopped by those who don’t.
You couldn’t tell that from the announcement Nike made on Labor Day that Kaepernick would be a prominent face of its advertisement for the foreseeable future by sending out a close-up poster of Kaepernick staring back coolly behind just a few printed words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
You couldn’t tell because neither ad said anything about the reason Kaepernick no longer played in the league, which was his protest — with the flag and national anthem as background — against unchecked police lethality upon black men. It didn’t note that the regularly updated databank on fatal force at The Washington Post counts 116, or 17 percent, of 691 people shot and killed this year by police were black men, though black men constitute roughly 6 percent of the U.S. population. It didn’t point out that 12 of those black men were unarmed, or 39 percent of all unarmed men shot and killed by police.
And Kaepernick didn’t hold a news conference to remind everyone of as much.
Nike bought Kaepernick’s silhouette but passed on his substance.
It mollified his militancy.
It may have shoehorned Kaepernick back into the league he is suing, for which Nike is the maker of the game apparel, but it did so with a Kaepernick much less biting than his sitting and kneeling during the packaged patriotic opening of every game became.
Most disappointing is that Kaepernick assented, apparently, to Nike’s makeover.
Activist turned sociologist Jeff Larson, who has studied the impact of commercialization on political stances, told me last November when Kaepernick appeared on GQ’s cover about the risk Kaepernick ran.
“There may be something to that, that the commercialization or popularization, stylization, etc., of Kaepernick will take the edge off the politics he espouses,” Larson, who taught at Towson and Willamette universities before taking a break in Hawaii, said then. “And it’s certainly plausible that this would increase his palatability for a broader range of people.”
Nike bet on the latter. Kaepernick, though he may invest the earnings in his Know Your Rights campaign and the admirable work he is doing with kids of color in particular, must be wary of eating it like bait.
This is why Muhammad Ali was wary of commercial influences during his forced exile from boxing, something he expressed in an interview that garnered the title “Damn Some Money” after it was laid over music. Money can muddle a message.
Nike is not and was never a social justice organization. It wasn’t when it outfitted John Thompson’s Georgetown teams, contracted provocative black filmmaker Spike Lee to hawk Air Jordans or lengthened the shorts on Michigan’s Fab Five. It didn’t become a social justice business, either, just because it extended its commercial relationship with Kaepernick and highlighted it.
Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, last year made his largest political donation to an Oregon candidate, half a million dollars, to Knute Buehler, the GOP gubernatorial hopeful who tried hard to cast himself as moderate. The Nike PAC most recently split its donations between Democrats and Republicans but did support some particularly conservative GOP candidates such as President Trump’s preferred successor to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s Senate seat, Luther Strange.
Nike is still, first and foremost, about making sports apparel and selling it. Anything else is secondary.
Indeed, it still has to be held in check when it comes to treatment of workers overseas. Just last month, United Students Against Sweatshops held its annual convention in Washington and included a march on the Nike store in Georgetown to protest what USAS said is the company’s retreat from a 30,000-worker plant in Indonesia.
In December 2016, Georgetown students staged a two-day sit-in of the university president’s office to force the school’s athletic teams to divorce Nike as their longtime uniform supplier if Nike didn’t agree to new inspection protocols at its overseas plants. Last August, the three stakeholders reached an agreement to continue the relationship.
“It’s great that Nike is taking a stance on social justice,” Ana Jimenez, an international coordinator for USAS, told me Tuesday of the Nike-Kaepernick deal. Jimenez was at the University of Alabama, where she was organizing students. “But is Nike hiding [questionable labor practices] behind black and brown athletes?”
After the #LawEnforcementAppreciationDay campaign didn’t go over well with what is arguably Nike’s most important market, CEO Mark Parker wrote a letter of apology and explanation to the company’s employees.
“Nike has a long history of supporting the marginalized and those whose voice is not always heard,” he stated. “In many cases, our athletes have eloquently argued for change and to stop the situation.
“As a company, I’m proud that Nike takes a stand on issues that impact all of us, our athletes and society as a whole. And I am proud that Nike stands against discrimination in any form. We stand against bigotry. We stand for racial justice.”
Particularly when it means selling more shoes.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Washington Post.