Those of you who follow me know that I write about Colin Kaepernick a lot. I want him to succeed. I want him to win. The tide seems to be turning for him, and I’m over the moon about what that means for him as an individual.
When I first saw Kaepernick kneeling in protest, I remember thinking: My God… They’re going to drive a hatchet into his back. And they’ve tried to. At every turn. They’ll keep trying. I don’t know how he’s withstood it all: the smears, the theft of his livelihood, the death threats. I admire him so much because I couldn’t have done it. I wouldn’t have.
He seemed so alone, particularly after he was cast out of the NFL, and it became clear that he was being blackballed. Conventional wisdom said fighting back would be futile, but he did. He hired a top-notch legal team, and they’ve presented enough evidence for his case against the NFL to move forward. The grievance we were told was petulant attention-seeking — a nothingburger — has legs.
And now we’ve learned that the photo op at Serena Williams’s match at the U.S. Open was orchestrated, and it was the lead-in to announcing his new partnership with Nike. Kaepernick’s deal with Nike is lucrative — it’s a “star” deal, the kind a top-end player would get. He’ll have his own branded line. Yes, there’ll be Kaepernick apparel. And it will sell. A lot. Nike isn’t a charity. They know where their bread is buttered. Black American teenagers decide what’s cool, and Adidas has been siphoning them off and shifting the trends in the market. This is Nike hitting back hard to reclaim its title.
The White tears were predictable.
When the news broke yesterday, I got on Twitter and waited. I knew it was coming: preposterous videos of people who despise Kaepernick destroying Nike merchandise they’d paid for (You guyz: Nike already has your money and doesn’t care what you do with their products after you buy them…). It was even more hilarious than I expected. One dudebro cut the Nike logo off his shorts while he was still wearing them. It was farcical and pathetic. Nike ran the numbers. Nike looked to history to understand how Kaepernick will be remembered in the future. Nike chose. Nike also spoke, and it told the bigots to crawl back under their rocks. Nike picked a side — the side of Kaepernick and his supporters.
This is quite an important moment. America is in the middle of a propaganda war, and Kaepernick’s team just got the best marketers in the world onside. (Whatever you think of Nike, its ad creative has been consistently stellar for over 30 years.) People do what they’re told, but they have to be told. And the right person has to do the telling. For all the shouting about Flags and Anthems and Jesus, America’s true religion is Capitalism, and Nike is one of its highest deities. America is being told by one of its gods what to do, and Nike knows it will be obeyed. The people who get to pick the winners have chosen Kaepernick, and there’s not a damn thing his detractors can do about it.
Most importantly for Kaepernick, Nike outplayed the NFL. Nike held the on-field apparel deal with the league, and the deal was due to expire next spring. Nike just renegotiated for a ten-year contract, all while keeping Kaepernick in the tuck. Kaepernick needs powerful allies, and now that Nike’s apparel deal is locked in for a decade, the NFL has no real leverage over the company. Kaepernick gets the respite of being inside Nike’s fortress.
Where I become uncomfortable with all this is when Nike begins being painted as heroic. This was all business — a masterclass when you think about it. Nike didn’t become Nike by being soft and cuddly. Billion dollar businesses are built on the backs of exploited workers. Nike has a long, sordid history of abusing sweatshop workers and subjecting them to horrible work conditions to produce their products cheaply and sell them at a substantial markup. I’m not fooling myself into thinking Nike is some benevolent entity. In a way, Kaepernick has made a deal with the devil, but it’s a devil he needs.
We all have a devil we need. It’s the corner capitalism has backed us all into.
I haven’t made any major clothing purchases in years. I’ve been thinking of revamping my wardrobe, and I’ve been researching ethically made clothing. Ethically made athletic shoes are particularly difficult to find, and I admit, the news of Kaepernick’s deal had me ready to give Nike my money (the evidence is all up and down my Twitter feed). I want to support Kaepernick for obvious reasons, but I also don’t want to participate in exploiting poor workers. So, I think the best course of action is to keep writing about him in support and to donate some money to the charities he champions.
It may seem like hypocrisy (and maybe it is), but I’m not the least bit upset with Kaepernick for securing the Nike bag. The fight he’s in the with the NFL costs money, the charitable work he does costs money, and he has to get it all from somewhere. He’s made a deal with the devil of his choosing, and now he has to fight to try to maintain control of his image and message and ensure that Nike doesn’t completely co-opt them. I’m not sure he’ll be able to, not many could. But he’s shown himself to be a level-headed, patient man. I think he sees the long game.