The quarterback was twice awarded the Western Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year while playing for the University of Nevada at Reno. Signed by the San Francisco 49ers in the second round of the 2011 draft, he became the starting quarterback during the following season and led the team to Super Bowl XLVII. In that same season, he signed a deal with Nike, which entailed few high profile appearances or endorsements until recently. With Kaepernick as starting quarterback, the team went to the NFC championships in 2013.
This is where things start to get fiery. When the national anthem played before games in the 2016 season, Kaepernick kneeled to protest police brutality, systemic racial injustice, and a host of interrelated issues within the United States. These gestures drew the by-now predictable wrath of a certain short-fingered blustering buffoon, who referred to Kaepernick as “that son of a bitch.” Following the 2016 season, Kaepernick ended his contract with the 49ers and entered the 2017 draft as a free agent; he was not picked up by any team, despite his player statistics placing him amongst most starting quarterbacks in the league. Kaepernick filed a suit against the NFL (still ongoing at the time of publication), alleging that owners and officials colluded to bar him employment due to his political activism.
Remember that little passing reference to a sport shoe company? This is where it comes around in a big way.
In early September of 2018, Nike unveiled an advertising campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its iconic “Just do it” slogan. The campaign spotlighted many of Nike’s contracted athletes, but the most attention-grabbing pieces were a two-minute video hosted by Kaepernick and a stark black and white photograph portrait of Kaepernick’s face captioned “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Sadly predictable reactions ensued and were widely publicized and regurgitated all over every image replicating technology platform. Many people, presumably conservative, documented themselves on various so-called social media platforms burning and otherwise defacing Nike gear, often with vague threats about the number of military veterans and/or true patriots in the United States of America.
The ad resuscitated some of the original controversy and leant fresh publicity to Kaepernick, but what about his original protest demands? Commentary by Forbes and other business publications as well as the measurable outcomes over the next few days belied the true result and aim of a seemingly controversial move: sell more Nike gear. The Guardian reported that after a brief hours-long dip in stock value after the release of the ads, sales both online and in Nike stores increased dramatically; Forbes quantifies the increase at 31%, though they offered no explanation of methods utilized to arrive at this number. After a short period of negatively affected stock prices and sales, those numbers increased dramatically and remunerated Nike even more handsomely than in the normal course of events.
What about the plight of those who inspired the protests in the first place? Articles, reports, newscasts, blogs and all the other whatnot of news reported primarily on the value of the move for Nike’s brand and how “bold” it is. What’s so bold about co-opting someone else’s activism to make money without taking risks of one’s own? Perhaps a small number of those upset by the ads will never again buy Nike gear. Or will they? They may say to each other, “Wouldn’t it be great to buy some brand new shoes and post some videos online of us burning them?” Well, that’s still technically a win for Nike in that the logic of capitalism dictates only that merchandise be sold; creating two camps of Nike customers—some that feel they are now social justice warriors on the front lines and some that feel they are protecting traditional American values (whatever that means)—has really only played a very shrewd game of targeting different demographics. The important thing to note is that both groups are buying Nike, they’re just using the gear for different ends.
The key word describing both of those groups is “feel.” What exactly does buying sporting goods have to do with social justice and human rights? There’s been a lot of furor and posturing by consumers, but nothing has changed for the people most adversely affected by the problems that inspired Kaepernick’s initial protest two years ago. And nothing will be changed by similar ads that are sure to come now that advertising specialists have again witnessed the effectiveness of the commodification of protest. Real change to the prison industrial complex, police brutality, systemic racism, racial inequity in professional sports (the NFL in particular), etc., requires a lot more than buying stylish shoes (whether you wear them or burn them). But the appropriation of protest just generates sales for the companies adopting the rhetoric and imagery.
Recall that word “consumer”? People are so accustomed to sales-speak that this term rarely elicits attention, but think about the definition of consumption; it is not to act or effect change, but merely to devour resources. That is precisely what happens by playing into the capitalist consumer/producer game, with the self-justifying assertion that it’s “your choice” or “expressing yourself” or some such nonsense. A company’s first and only responsibility, as dictated by capitalism (and borne out by Nike’s own checkered history with respect to labor, wages, sweatshops and more), is simply to make as much money as possible. That’s it. If Nike is genuinely the best shoe for your training regimen, fine; don’t kid yourself that a flashy ad and your expensive purchase are helping you “be the change you wish to see.”
Other than sales for Nike, the only other salient effect is a subtler one. Allowing the consumption mindset to creep into all areas of life and thinking only serves to reinforce status quo corporate capitalism. This makes radical change less, not more, likely. It also strengthens the class divisions that make these problems so intractable at present. Consumers (not supporters) of a cause buy products and conclude that they’ve somehow lived up to their ideals and made an impact; all they’ve done is support Nike (Just buy it) and decided to ignore the problem since the purchase constitutes “doing something.” In this manner an ever larger segment of society maintains its ignorance of complicated and longstanding issues that do not directly affect them. Everything becomes subsumed in the brightly colored illusory world of ads, brands, social media, consuming, etc., while the real world—where we actually live—gets ignored. Let us not go down this path any further, but turn back, change ourselves, and step out of the consumer-activist trap.
What now? Maybe the ad ignited some feeling, some drive in you. Perhaps this article or another piqued your interest in working for change in a meaningful way. Good. You can still buy some Nike shoes, but don’t stop there. Research the organizations to which Kaepernick is donating money. Read and listen to other activists, living and dead, who have addressed the same issues—some of these whom are far too radical to ever show up on a billboard on your social media news feed. Contact local organizations and get involved with them.
Don’t just buy it; go do it.