Nike Is Still Evil
I’m happy to see Colin Kaepernick signed to a new deal by Nike. I’m happy to see him signed by anyone. I’m happy to see him receive a paycheck again. I’m happy to see a crack in the economic boycott Kaepernick suffered for doing the right thing. I’m happy for children to have a hero who defies a racist wrath and survives his punishment and banishment, becoming an icon of strength in popular culture. But none of this fools me into believing that Nike is no longer evil.
First, let’s look at what got Kaepernick exiled into unemployment and brand banishment in the first place. He felt a responsibility to use his celebrity as a tool in the nation’s ongoing civil rights struggle. There’s a long history of black celebrities risking their careers to stand up for civil rights. Think Billie Holiday, Jackie Robinson, Harry Belafonte, Mohammad Ali, and hundreds of others. All paid a price. Kaepernick was just the latest entry to a list of folks our country now mostly reveres as heroes.
Contrary to the narrative often pushed in the media, Kaepernick was not “protesting the national anthem.” So what if he was, though? “The Star Spangled Banner” has a nasty racist history. (An original stanza directed at former slaves who served in the British Colonial Marines in the war of 1812: “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”) But Kaepernick’s fight wasn’t about a song or any other distraction. Kaepernick’s protest was focused with laser precision on hundreds of years of government-sanctioned violence against black and brown bodies, which is vividly documented today in the age of omnipresent video and unfiltered platforms on which to share evidence of racist violence. His question is straightforward, anything else a distraction: Are you for or against racist violence?
Kaepernick was careful to chose a symbolically respectful form for his protest—dropping to a knee. People drop to a knee when they propose marriage, or drop to two when they’re are in church. Soldiers drop to a knee at the graves of fallen comrades. No one drops to a knee to say “fuck you” or threaten or to disrespect anyone. Know your culture.
I ain’t smelling the smoke
But Kaepernick protested in the age of Fox News, a massive Republican propaganda universe, and a childish, racist president. Forget the hype and admit the reality: Kaepernick was vilified for transcending the role of a gladiator and becoming a civil rights fighter. His request to stop killing black people seems reasonable. Yet he became an outcast. Then came Nike to the rescue.
Unlike Kaepernick, Nike is no friend to the global struggle for civil rights. Despite the narrative that the Nike PR office would like to see take root, Nike did nothing brave or intentionally righteous, nor did they take any real risk by signing Kaepernick as a spokesperson. Nike is the world’s most successful branding behemoth, with their “swoosh” essentially populating itself into global alphabets. With an army of culture spies stalking, stealing, and coopting hip street culture in real time, and behavioral and data analytics forces that put even Facebook to shame, Nike’s every move is completely researched and gamed. Contrary to the brand creds they’ve engineered, Nike does not take risks.
Right on cue, Twitter racists piled on Nike, calling for a boycott and sneaker burnings. So Trump’s base got excited and said they would burn their Nikes. You’re not smelling smoke, however, because, with few exceptions, the aging, proudly white Trump base is far more likely to be wearing shitkickers or tweed than trendy, overpriced athletic lifestyle brands.
The day after Nike’s Kaepernick announcement, Trump tweeted, “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts.” By the end of the week Nike’s online sales surged 31 percent. (As of this writing there are no reliable statistics for in-store sales.) Are you surprised? And while slow-witted daytraders dipped Nike stock just over three percent, it quickly started rebounding, still in the black this month and riding 52 percent higher than this time last year. Trump’s “absolutely killed” tweet ended with this: “I wonder if they [Nike] had any idea it would be this way.” There’s so much this man just doesn’t get. So sad.
Nike’s Kaepernick move is more than a simple marketing ploy. Even if sales or market price were to take a dip, Nike would still be ahead because they’ve always played the long game. For Nike it’s all about keeping the brand hip and meaningful in the long run. And quite frankly, as far as brand rep goes, Nike’s kicks have been slipping.
While Nike would like its customers to see the brand as a liberation device, the company has been struggling since the 1990s to counter the reality that it is pathologically greedy and has persistently been a leader in sourcing manufacturing to global sweatshops. It’s no accident that these toxic factories are in countries where workers are most exploitable and least likely to have the freedom to unionize. This issue dogged Nike in 2016 and 2017, with college-campus-based actions against the company for not honoring its commitments to allow labor observers into its contract factories. Nike only relented after threats of a nationwide student boycott threatened campus co-branding agreements. Currently, a pending court case threatens to open a potential class-action lawsuit against Nike to as many as 500 women employees as the “Me Too” movement catches up with Nike management.
In light of the persistent brand-threat posed by its own sourcing policies, and the new threat of media reports looking into its allegedly sexist management culture, co-branding the swoosh with one of Trump’s favorite hate-tweet targets makes lots of sense. The Kaepernick partnership promises to allow Nike’s popularity to correlate inversely with Trump’s sinking popularity, Nike rising as Trump falls. With Trump insiders now regularly being charged, convicted, or pleading guilty to crimes, and with more on the horizon emerging as potential witnesses against Trump, and with polls showing the first signs of erosion deep into Trump’s base, all of the metrics were there for Nike’s ever-so-smart marketing team to make this move.
And the co-branding is working. Reports from Wall Street last week document that Millennial investors are flocking to the formerly dirty (and arguably overvalued) stock. Kaepernick fans and other anti-racists are applauding Nike’s move. Some will “just do It” at the mall and soon be sporting Nikes themselves. Nike is with us. Nike hears us. Blah blah. Are things so bad that supporting Colin Kaepernick‘s call for basic human rights is a revolutionary move? I don’t think Nike workers in Cambodia, where The Guardian reports that approximately 500 were hospitalized after collapsing while working extended shifts in hot humid 98 degree factories, will feel any liberation.
Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are archived at mediastudy.com and are available globally through syndication.