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Sep 07, 20184m read

Nike Courting Controversy in New Ad Campaign Starring Colin Kaepernick

By Ben Szurek

On the eve of the 2016 NFL Season, Colin Kaepernick sat on a bench in Levi’s Stadium, San Francisco, while everyone else in attendance stood in honor of our national anthem. His reasoning: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” That simple action, and those particular words, kicked off a controversy – over patriotism, police brutality, and power – that has plagued the NFL and occupied the nation ever since.

Colin Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since 2016, when the 49ers opted to let him drift into free agency indefinitely. In spite of his absence, his actions inspired a movement; last season, protest via kneeling during the national anthem became a staple of every NFL game. Now, Kaepernick has landed a new position of Nike’s latest ad campaign.

Nike’s campaign, which launched this week, commemorates the 30th anniversary of their trademark slogan – “Just Do It” – by celebrating the stories of athletes who have overcome tremendous obstacles in pursuit of something great. In that vein, the first commercial of the series features the likes of Serena Williams and LeBron James, as well as a paraplegic wrestler and a man who completed an Ironman after beating brain cancer and losing 120 pounds. While these stories testify to the power of Just Doing It, Colin Kaepernick serves as the center of attention. In the commercial, the former quarterback delivers a monologue, expounding upon the “Just Do It” philosophy: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.” Meanwhile, interspersed between video and images of the aforementioned cast of characters, we see dramatic shots of Kaepernick walking through city streets at night, sporting a black turtleneck and voluminous afro – an outfit in the spirit of the 1970s Black Power movement.

Since the fall of 2016, Colin Kaepernick has become synonymous with his actions and the method of protest he helped to pioneer. Nike’s decision to make him the face of the brand at this moment amounts to an endorsement of the anthem-kneeling movement – a move that has already inspired very different reactions.

Colin Kaepernick, and the dozens of football players who have taken up the anthem-protest in his absence, view that protest as a moral necessity. Professional sports give professional athletes a platform from which they can affect change. Those players, the majority of whom are black or people of color, regard mass incarceration, police brutality, and other forms of racism to be problems urgent enough to merit utilizing that bully pulpit of sorts. Many Americans, however, interpret the protest differently. To them, failing to stand and honor the national anthem and the flag comes across as a deliberate act of disrespect to America itself. In particular, these people tend to view the protest as an insult to American Armed Forces and Veterans – the people who have put their lives at risk to defend all of America’s citizens and uphold the values of the nation. It is worth noting, however, that the protesters themselves have taken measures – such as meeting with Nate Boyer, a former Green Beret – to craft their protest into something that highlights the key issues to them, without disrespecting the flag or its defenders. (That meeting with Boyer prompted Kaepernick to transition from sitting on the bench to taking a knee.) Nevertheless, the perceived insult to Veterans and American institutions has antagonized many NFL fans and affected ratings – a fact that has led league administrators and franchise owners to crack down on the anthem-protest movement.

While it might seem strange that a large corporation like Nike, with a wide and diverse consumer base, would want to involve themselves in such a divisive issue, it is perhaps more strange that they are not only involved, but actively courting controversy. In what can only be described as a power move, Nike aired their two-minute long, Kaepernick-centric commercial during last night’s season opener between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Atlanta Falcons. The first press release for the ad campaign came from Kaepernick himself, when he tweeted a black-and-white picture of his face, marked at the bottom with a Nike swoosh and “Just Do It,” along with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” In the past two years, Kaepernick has certainly lost and struggled as a result of his ideological stand. However, the language of the caption seems specially crafted to create controversy – particularly with those who hold Kaepernick’s protest as an affront to American soldiers, who arguably sacrifice more for their beliefs than any other group in the country.

Since that preseason game in 2016 when Kaepernick first staged his now famous protest, his action has polarized the entire country. He has pushed some to boycott the NFL and, now, burn their Nike gear; he has motivated many others to purchase his jersey in support of his cause. Regardless of what camp we fall into, the anthem-protests popularized by Kaepernick and carried on by his colleagues force us to reckon with the critical questions surrounding what it means to be a patriot, and what is required in respecting an ideal.

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