Publicly traded corporations are intensely cynical institutions designed almost entirely to churn out profit for investors. This makes them belligerently self-serving and fundamentally untrustworthy in many ways—they exploit labor, preserve political structures that enable their amoral quest for more profit, carry tremendous apathy toward the maintenance of the environment, things of that nature.
But there is one thing that you can believe when it comes out of the mouth of a colossal publicly traded corporation: that the things they do are designed, from root to flower, to attract people who are willing to give them money and not alienate too many people who are already doing so. These companies have massive departments dedicated to market research, they hire outside consultants, and the advertising firms they hire to craft their public-facing voice also do research and also hire consultants. Everyone in that whole goddamn apparatus is doing everything they can to display an attractive face.
More than any other apparel company in human history, Nike has built their success on figuring out which athletes and athletic programs will do that job for them, and putting those athletes in a position to succeed. Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Charles Barkley, Serena Williams, you name them, if they were an idiom-altering American athlete who played sometime in the last thirty years, they probably worked for Nike and they probably had their merch injected straight into American eyeballs 24/7.
Yesterday, the Swoosh revealed what face they have determined can do their bottom line the most good, and it is, unexpectedly, the Afro-encased visage of Colin Kaepernick, former Super Bowl quarterback, combo throwing-running threat, political lightning rod and NFL exile. Kaep, across multiple games in 2016, took a knee during the National Anthem in silent protest against police brutality inflicted on black people. This drove some people crazy, presumably because they have never been exposed to the idea that a silent, non-disruptive protest against an institution you think is committing grave injustices might be kind of a good idea if you were trying to shed light on those injustices.
One of the people who flipped his lid over this was Donald Trump, who was, at the time, running for president. Kaepernick, who was not playing up to his lofty standards but was still a viable NFL quarterback in a world where there are twenty of those at a given time, eventually drifted off the 49ers, became a free agent and was mysteriously unable to find a team who would sign him. The NFL, run by rich old assholes who were scared of tiny hands and fearing an open revolt from viewers, almost certainly hush-hush blackballed Kaepernick, ending the professional sporting career of one of the most promising quarterbacks of his generation before he turned thirty.
Since that time, Nike has quietly maintained their relationship with Kaepernick, keeping him on their endorsement payroll and waiting to see how his career stuff shook out. It now appears, for all intents and purposes, that Kaep will not play another down in the NFL, and Nike has decided that… they don’t give a shit! Kaep will have a product line, he will get paid millions of dollars a year, and he will be a public-facing athlete for Nike, even though he is not currently working as an athlete. Truly spectacular stuff.
You have to imagine, perceptive vultures that they are, that Nike took a second to look back on the career of another activist athlete, Muhammad Ali. They noticed that he, too, was exiled from his sport during his peak, on account of his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. They likely took note that it didn’t really matter—he was still insanely famous, on television all the time, and he even managed to top line a huge fight in Africa without the support of the American boxing establishment. And hey, they probably took note that, when he died a few years ago, Ali, who was loathed by a certain, Nixon-humping portion of the American public at the time of his exile, was universally regarded as an American Hero by everyone who wrote or talked about him.
And so, if you’re a company devoted to benefiting off the profile of world-warping athletes, the sort of people who dominate the national conversation, why wouldn’t you see what has happened to Kaepernick and think, “Hey, if, in the '60s, we had the opportunity to become the official sponsor of Ali in exile, wouldn’t we have made a colossal mistake if we said no thanks, too hot for us!”
The perverse incentives of the NFL, who always want the focus on the franchises and not the players, were ripe for exploitation by a dude who decided that there was something more important than football, and Kaep made himself that dude and the league played right into it. Kaepernick is more famous and more influential than any other player currently plying their trade in the NFL. Aaron Rodgers, the best player in the league and a football supergenius who might be the most skilled player in the history of the game’s most important position, got a big-deal contract this week that would have been regarded as an insult had it been given to an All-Star baseball player and been greeted by a colossal shrug by the NBA intelligentsia. If you were a company looking to invest in someone who actually moved the needle, why would you pay a football player aside from Kaepernick? Who, outside of fantasy players and die-hard Sunday couch warriors, has even heard of most of these dudes? Half of the people who found themselves skimming this article after seeing it shared on Twitter probably have no idea who the fuck Cam Newton is, to say nothing of finding themselves moved to buy compression shirts on his account.
Clay Travis, a vague pile of sports noises given form by his slavish devotion to grifting racist sports fans, insists that this will be a disaster. Aly Raisman, the USA Gymnastics whistleblower would have been better, he says—ignoring that her sport literally does not have shoes in it—Kaepernick is too divisive, he is a bad messenger, he refuses to come on my show and defend himself against my bad-faith bullshit blah blah blah.
What he ignores, of course, is that conservatives blow at holding themselves to modifying their behavior for ethical reasons. They whine and whine about Hollywood, but they go see movies and watch TV the same as pretty much everyone else. They vote for politicians who spout the anti-elitist nonsense they halfway believe even though every last one of them is a cosmopolitan, Ivy-educated wimp who owns ostrich coats and swills expensive wine day and night. Consumption just doesn’t have an ethical dimension, when the logic of your ideology is so deeply tied to the logic of the market. They buy what they want, and they don’t really care about it aside from that.
I mean, look at these dudes mutilating socks and torching shoes in response to Kaepernick’s Nike ad. They can’t even see that these acts do absolutely nothing to preclude consumption. Hell, they’re practically doing the work of the brand, flashing the logo, surrounding it in cool-ass flames, making it the victim of a doofus’s scissors. Because liberals, on the other hand, are more than easily persuaded by moral arguments for consumption. The entire economic spin of the country is driven by the choices and preferences of cosmopolitan, urban consumers.
You never even heard of a paper straw three months ago and in two years time they will be the primary straw that is available at fast food restaurants all over the country, because urban liberals were quickly and thoroughly convinced that their consuming habits could be modified to make the world a marginally better place. Compostable cups, recyclable cans, electric cars, you name it, the product of the future is grown from the seed of liberal guilt. It is the same with Nike giving Kaepernick the space to be a hero in their ads. It attaches the virtue of a dude—and make no mistake, Kaepernick is a virtuous and important dude, even if he is taking a check from Nike—to their product, which was previously associated with sweatshop labor in the eyes of the woke consumer. It’s tremendously cynical, for sure. But if Nike has a single virtue, it’s knowing what the wave of the future will be, and considering the future that Kaepernick is striving for, it’s a good sign they’ve decided to hang ten.