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How Nike Got All the Way to Lionizing Colin Kaepernick

Nike x Colin Kaepernick. Photo: Nike

The most common sports urban legend that you are absolutely certain is true but isn’t is that Michael Jordan once said “Republicans buy shoes too.” There is almost no proof that Jordan actually ever said this. Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, writing for Slate back in 2016, traced it back to a 1995 book about Jordan, in which author Sam Smith claims Jordan said it “to a friend,” but he later backtracked from even that. Michael Jordan is one of the most quoted, interviewed athletes in the history of time, but there is not a single clip of him ever saying such a thing. It is likely he never said it at all. Yet, as the years have gone along and the idea of being an apolitical public figure has grown more and more impossible, the quote has stuck to Jordan as tightly as “Be Like Mike.”

And I’ll say: The quote, made-up or not, feels today like it comes from another universe entirely, like everything, a relic of a pre-Trump world when a shoe company’s only, or even primary, goal was simply to sell shoes. Now that Nike, on the eve of the NFL season beginning, has made Kaepernick the face of its new marketing campaign — the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign, no less — firmly sticking its, uh, foot right in the middle of the hottest issue in sports today, the equation looks decidedly altered from Jordan’s day. (That Jordan still mostly stays out of politics today says more about him than it does about shoes.) In the same way riding the middle and being all things to all people is no longer feasible in politics, trying to pretend that shoes — or, more accurately, a marketing juggernaut that’s always a step or two ahead of the game — can be apolitical in the year 2018 is a fool’s errand. In a divided world, Nike has learned, in a way the NFL just can’t figure out, that staying out of politics isn’t a way to keep your business humming: It’s how you lose.

In this environment, Nike’s move is so simple it’s sort of embarrassing no one else came up with it first. You can argue that unless the country officially slides entirely into fascism — which is always possible! — there is basically no downside. Look at how they’ve covered their bases. They are such a fundamental part of professional and amateur sports that most organizations and customers couldn’t live without them if they wanted to. (This story from a Knoxville newspaper seems to lament that Nike has a deal with the University of Tennessee for nearly $4 million a year through 2026, as if to say: Hey, they’re downright forcing us to take this money. They’re holding us hostage!) The number of people who will actively refuse to buy Nike gear now — or are, weirdly, cutting the Nike logo off their socks, which seems to misunderstand the fundamental function of socks — is so low that even if they’re not offset by the number of Kaepernick-branded items, they’re clearly comfortable moving in the more politically charged consumer marketing direction that most of corporate America has been migrating toward in recent years. In this case, Nike is hardly out on an island.

(It also has the added bonus of being a move that has a certain satisfaction in the wake of James Gunn and Disney, with a massive corporation calling bullshit on Gamergate-esque boycott tactics.)

And perhaps most vitally, they’re betting on the future rather than the past. While it’s possible that in 40 years our 20-something grandchildren will be out there vilifying Colin Kaepernick as a traitor to America and putting up statues of Senator Jack Posobiec, it sure doesn’t seem likely. Even a cursory look at history shows that people like Kaepernick — who, it feels obligatory to remind everybody again, has for two years been blackballed by the NFL because of his personal politics, leading to a massive lawsuit against the league that is more likely to gain steam now — have grown in stature as the years go along rather than decline.

Put it this way: When you look at the people in charge of the NFL — a gaggle of old rich white men who, Mark Leibovich convincingly argues in his terrific new book Big Game, have a senators-right-before-the-fall-of-Rome vibe to them — why in the world would they be the people you would bet on? The NFL is a big deal in the United States, and it’s certainly a big deal for the president, who keeps poking at it like it’s a wounded rodent on the side of the road. But as far as Nike is concerned, the NFL is just another client … and one that’s about a third the size of Nike.

That size gives them enormous power in any fight. The reason the NFL has wobbled in the face of Trump’s constant Kaepernick tweets is because they, like (supposedly) Jordan before them, have tried to close their eyes, plug their ears, and keep yelling “Protect the Shield! Football can be all things to all people!” until the noise goes away. Nike knows better. Rather than be tugged to and fro by world events and politics, Nike is getting out in front of it. They have realized it is better to pick a side, even one that might (theoretically) upset a percentage of your customers and (temporarily) hurt your stock price, than pretend you can stay out of the fray entirely.

Nike is, to say the least, an unusual leader of the Resistance. As the National Review has pointed out, the type of person who has been supporting Kaepernick all this time has to go through some mental and ethical contortions to convince themselves that Nike is the good guy here, pointing out how little Nike pays its assembly line workers, how cruel some of their factory conditions are, how they’ve settled countless racial discrimination suits, so on. (That the National Review has just noticed these things now that they’re mad at Nike about something else is its own indictment.) But it is still the biggest name in sports marketing — again, bigger than the NFL — building a campaign around the most polarizing figure in sports, a signature line vital to the entire company’s history. One can appreciate the historic import of Kaepernick’s elevation without necessarily giving a blanket endorsement to the company itself.

But look at me, using such big phrases like “historic import” when referring to a marketing deal between an athlete and a brand. How Rovellian! This is one of those sports moments that doesn’t actually have anything to do with sports — not only is Kaepernick of course not an active player, he in fact already had a deal with Nike that the company simply wasn’t using — but does get everyone to stick a finger in the air trying to guess which way the wind is blowing.

That’s the thing about this deal. While it feels like the good guys getting one over on the bad guys — anything that inspires this many angry white men to run for the fainting couches, or the sock-cutting scissors, can’t be all bad — it’s really not any different a strategy than Jordan’s (supposed) slogan 25 years ago. Back then, it was cost efficient for Nike to stay out of politics. It was also cost efficient for, say, LeBron James (Nike’s biggest star since Jordan, or Kobe anyway), to stay out of politics ten years ago, when, heading into the 2008 Olympics, he refused to sign a petition urging China to change its position on Darfur, a petition almost all his teammates had signed, out of deference to Nike’s interests. Now, it is cost efficient for Nike — and, thus, LeBron, who has turned out to be as politically active a superstar as we’ve ever seen in our sports — to wade into politics, a decision that would have seemed absurd not long ago but is a logical response to our insane current culture. Nike doesn’t care about Colin Kaepernick, or politics, any more than it did a decade ago. It just benefits them now to look like they are. This is not a slight to Kaepernick; this is a man who has given away millions in his career, not to mention that career itself. You shouldn’t blame him for embracing Nike any more (or less) than you should blame any other athlete. But Nike is simply doing Nike. If in 15 years the winds change, they’ll blow back in the other direction.

Their bet is that they won’t have to, and as someone who believes that maybe America should be a place where people shouldn’t be blackballed from their industry for their political beliefs (or have the ranting loon tweeting in the White House in response), I am hopeful their bet will pay off. That they’ve even made it is encouraging: I guess a giant, enormously profitable, ethically shady company having faith that things will be better in the future counts as optimism these days.