By now you know that the Nike Corporation has decided to make Colin Kaepernick the face of the celebration of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign. The reaction has been swift and predictable. Some people have vowed to not purchase another pair of Nike sneakers or athletic wear. Some have taken to the Internet to show their cuting up Nike socks and burning Nike sneakers. Is this really a patriot act or is it yet another example of anti-blackness that has become business as usual for these United States?
All through the US Open Tennis Tournament, Nike has been running an ad that juxtaposes Serena Williams as professional tennis player with video of her as a little girl learning the game. The voice over in the ad is that of her dad, Richard Williams coaching, cajoling, and encouraging her. At one point we hear Mr. Williams say, “hit it like you’re in the US Open!” The slogan that closes out the ad reads, “It’s only crazy until you do it!”
Serena (and her sister, Venus) has been the victim of anti-black vitriol from the moment she took the tennis world by storm. The beads in her hair were too noisy. Her style was unorthodox having been taught the game by a non-professional like her dad. She has been body shamed and told she was unattractive. Her tennis brilliance has been attributed solely to her “athleticism” rather than hard work and skill. Just after the French Open, we learned that her specially designed one-piece outfit to help her cope with life-threatening blood clots would be banned from future French Opens but in perfect Serena style and flare she showed up at the US open in a one-shoulder outfit with a tutu! Although she is undoubtedly the best athlete in the world (sorry LeBron) there was a time (2015) when she earned less in endorsements than Maria Sharapova despite dominating Sharapova on the court.
Now along comes Colin Kaepernick who has taken a brave and principled stance against racist police brutality. His refusal to stand for the national anthem has cost him his career. We may soon learn that the NFL colluded against him to keep him from earning a spot on any NFL team. But he has become a hero to Black people everywhere. The slogan attached to his Nike ad reads, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything!” The social media response was swift with #JustDontDoIt and #JustBurnIt trending on Twitter.
Nike, Inc. is a $34 billion international corporation. If you think for one minute the company did not do its market research BEFORE releasing this campaign you are ignorant of how business actually works. Nike has already locked down a $1 billion contract with the NFL for the next 8 years. Colin Kaepernick is still one of its clients and he is popular among young Black people. Nike is playing the long game. Having sat on a Division IA athletic board for 7 years, I have seen this game from the inside. Colleges and universities have to clothe their athletes and the days of every sport on the campus picking their own supplier are over. One contract for the entire athletic program with lots of perks is standard operating procedure and Nike has been ruthless in this game.
Nike underwrites AAU and prep athletes and sponsors countless urban athletic programs. (I know this as the grandmother of an elite basketball player who was regularly invited to the Nike Invitational Tournaments and outfitted with their shoes). While this sounds benevolent on their part, their goal is to steer these young people to colleges and universities with which they have contracts. Elite prep athletes who express interest in non-Nike schools receive all sorts of pressure to choose a “Nike school.” But the Nike shoe and apparel burners and boycotters do not seem to care about this side of the Nike story.
Earlier this year, Nike attempted to rectify the pay disparity that exists between its male and female employees. Female employees at Nike regularly reported sexual harassment and unequal pay at Nike Headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. But the shoe and apparel burners and boycotters do not seem to care about this side of the Nike story.
Nike, like most of the athletic-leisure wear industry, has a terrible track record when it comes to exploiting workers in developing countries. The sweatshop conditions that exist in Nike factories are well documented. The fact that children and women are working under harsh conditions for subsistence wages does not seem to bother these patriotic, “principled” consumers. They will not burn their sneakers or boycott the company over this.
Nike is not making a political statement. It is making a business move. It is clear on its target consumers. Those consumers are not the ones buying Nike Monarchs for $65 dollars at JC Penney’s or $39.99 at TJ Maxx. No, Nike continues to court inner-city kids whose parents scrimp and save to pay over $100 for the latest version of Air Jordans. That a few White men (who may or may not be able to jump) burn their sneakers is a calculated risk that ultimately will not hurt their bottom line. Remember when people in Cleveland burned their LeBron jerseys? By the way, Nike also owns Converse, Vans, Cole Haan, Umbro, and Hurley so there’s a lot of burning and cutting they need to do!
The outrage over Nike is just one more salvo being fired in the anti-black campaign that the current resident of the White House has made his rallying cry. If it is about patriotism, where were they when a presidential candidate claimed that Senator John McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured? If it is about patriotism, where were they when this same candidate maligned a Gold Star family? No, this is about Black people having the temerity to say that they are sick and tired of racism. This is about Black people exercising their right to protest injustice. This is a continuation of the anti-blackness that pervades every aspect of American life.