Basketball legend and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan reportedly rejected a 1996 request to endorse black Senate candidate Harvey Gantt’s challenge to Jesse Helms by saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Now, 20 years later, Nike seems determined to test that notion with its controversial new ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the currently inactive professional football player known for being the first to sit (and later, kneel) during the national anthem before games, in protest of racial injustice. Nike’s Kaepernick campaign, built around a message— “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything”—features extreme close-ups of the quarterback and his afro, suggesting an iconic heroism associated with civil rights figures of the past. Nike will contribute to the former player’s Know Your Rights organization, a summer camp for at-risk youth operated by the Colin Kaepernick Foundation, whose mission is to “fight oppression of all kinds globally, through education and social activism.”
For two years, Kaepernick has been a divisive figure among pro football fans, and even among those who don’t follow the game. His supporters cite his failure to get a position as a starting NFL quarterback as prima facie evidence of the league’s institutional racism, which Kaepernick has supposedly “sacrificed everything” to fight. But the quarterback’s specific demands remain vague, at best. A recent New York Times profile noted his conspicuous, “deafening” silence, framing it as a powerful tactic. But when Kaepernick does speak, the picture he describes bears little relation to reality. In April, accepting an award from Amnesty International in the Netherlands, Kaepernick said that American “police officers continue to terrorize black and brown communities, abusing their power, and then hiding behind their blue wall of silence, and laws that allow for them to kill us with virtual impunity.” One hardly needs to be a political conservative to recognize such statements as hyperbolic in the extreme.
Kaepernick offers nothing in the way of clarification of his demands, other than a ten-point list of rights, which includes the “right to be loved.” He has no specific proposal other than increased protest and activism. He refuses to vote. His protests have morphed from a criticism of American law-enforcement policies vis-a-vis African Americans to a general protest about “oppression of all kinds globally.”
Other NFL players who count themselves as socially aware have worked with the league to fund groups sympathetic to their views. After negotiations with activist players, represented by Malcolm Jenkins of the Philadelphia Eagles, the NFL pledged $100 million to social-justice organizations. The deal caused a schism with Kaepernick and others, who see the $100 million as a payoff meant to silence player dissent. But it’s unclear what the NFL could do, if anything, to satisfy the hardliners so that they would agree to stand during pregame ceremonies. Even after the agreement with the NFL, Jenkins continues to raise a “black power” fist during the national anthem.
Kaepernick’s high-profile supporters do make one specific demand, but it’s not related to police violence or other social issues: they insist that Kaepernick be given a quarterback spot on an NFL team. Kaepernick himself is suing the NFL, claiming that the league has colluded to deny him a job, and this claim has subtly become the focus of the protest movement. According to the activists, the fact that no team wants Kaepernick proves that the NFL is conspiring to thwart the player’s silent protests; teams are even willing to accept less-talented QBs, the advocates say, who won’t rock the boat. Is this true? Kaepernick thrived briefly, before the NFL rediscovered the truth that highly mobile, running quarterbacks can succeed for only so long before defenses and repeated injuries slow them down. Robert Griffin III played in a similar style, winning awards and accolades in a shining 2012 rookie season, before knee injuries and hard tackles took their toll on him. RG III now feels “blessed” that he survived preseason cuts to become Baltimore’s third-string quarterback. Griffin is 28; Kaepernick will be 31 in November.
Some quarterbacks play into their late thirties these days, but most who do are continuing careers of almost uninterrupted success, such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, or the now-retired Peyton Manning. In San Francisco, Kaepernick was benched in favor of Blaine Gabbert—not exactly an endorsement of his talents from the coaches, whose continued employment depends on putting the best players on the field. Kaepernick has not played since 2016, when he started 11 games for a poor San Francisco team that won just one of those games. His career record as a starter is 28-30. It was only after he was benched, for what it’s worth, that Kaepernick decided to bring his political consciousness to the fore.
Kaepernick might be better than the worst quarterbacks now playing, but NFL teams are commercial enterprises that must satisfy multiple stakeholders, including fans. If Kaepernick were the best quarterback out there, surely some team would decide that the negative publicity that he attracts was outweighed by the prospect of winning a Super Bowl. While the NFL owners’ approach to off-the-field distractions is inconsistent, their avoidance of players (even quarterbacks) who might damage their brand is well established. Tim Tebow won quite a few NFL games in scintillating fashion, but his foregrounded religious fervor—combined with the limited effectiveness of his own running-quarterback style—led teams to bypass him, even for backup or third-string duty. Tebow now plays minor-league baseball.
Nike just signed a billion-dollar contract with the NFL. The global sports apparel firm has surely conducted market research suggesting that Kaepernick will prove a net plus for its brand. In today’s climate of political division and in-your-face saltiness, that might prove correct. But we should also remember that Coke did bulletproof research on new Coke, as Pepsi did on Crystal Pepsi, and as Ford did on the Edsel. Time will tell how Nike’s bet plays out.
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