Colin Kaepernick won’t be on the field this weekend when the NFL season kicks off. However, his presence will be felt, thanks to the handful of players that continue to protest racial injustice during the national anthem; the ongoing battle between the NFL and NFL Player’s Association over the league’s anthem policy; and the elephant-in-the-room collusion lawsuit, in which Kaepernick is suing the NFL for allegedly conniving to keep him off of the field because he took a knee to protest police brutality.
But his presence won’t be limited to the abstract, either. His face will be seen, and his voice will be heard. Literally.
Earlier this week, Nike made a splash when it announced that Kaepernick was going to be the face of the 30-year anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign.
The advertisement, which is already plastered on a giant billboard in downtown San Francisco, is an uncomfortable close-up image of Kaepernick’s face, in black and white, emblazoned with the phrase, “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.”
On Thursday night, during the opening game of the NFL season, Nike will air the commercial component of the ad campaign. Narrated by Kaepernick, it’s an incredibly moving spot, featuring the stories of a plethora of famous and amateur athletes, including NFL players Shaquem Griffith and Odell Beckham Jr., NBA legend LeBron James, and tennis superstar Serena Williams.
“Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough,” Kaepernick says into the camera at the end of the commercial.
The NFL has been incredibly transparent about its desire for Kaepernick and his message of racial injustice to go away. However, their attempt to silence his voice has only amplified his cultural power.
— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 5, 2018
According to Esquire, Nike’s Kaepernick ad amassed $43 million worth of exposure in 24 hours. And while President Donald Trump was predictably critical — and social media a-flutter with the president’s supporters destroying their own Nike gear in wan protest — most of the reaction has been “neutral to positive.”
Of course, there are legitimate reasons for even Kaepernick’s most devoted supporters to be concerned about the commodification of this protest. As Ben Carrington and Jules Boykoff noted in The Guardian, there is an inherent tension between supporting Nike’s capitalist ideals, and advocating for the eradication of racist, oppressive systems.
After all, Nike has benefited more than most from said systems. This is the same company that runs sweatshops, is being sued for sexual harassment against female employees, and is sticking by Michigan State despite its enabling of the largest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history.
“Kaepernick often invokes the history and legacy of the radical black tradition, from W.E.B. Du Bois to Angela Davis,” Carrington and Boykoff write. “But that tradition grounded its rightful critique of white supremacy and racial subjugation in an understanding of capitalism’s awesome and destructive power, alongside a commitment to socialism.”
And Nike’s corporatization of Kaepernick’s message cannot be overlooked. Their ad rather conspicuously avoids any specific mention of what the “something” in which Kaepernick believes is, as well as leaving the nature of his “sacrifice” undefined. Of course, it’s not hard for those who have been paying any bit of attention to fill in the blanks — Kaepernick believed in using his platform to protest police brutality and systemic racism, and he sacrificed a career in the NFL as a result. But those absences aren’t accidental; they allow Nike to benefit from the work of revolutionaries and activists, while refusing any ownership of the controversy.
“[G]lobal, multibillion-dollar corporations that run an archipelago of sweatshops don’t underwrite rebellions,” Dave Zirin of The Nation warns. “They co-opt and quash them. If anyone can navigate this snakepit, it is Colin Kaepernick, but it won’t be easy. The revolution will not be branded.”
Of course, Kaepernick’s Nike billboards aren’t the only things overshadowing the start of the NFL season. Last week, the arbitrator hearing Kaepernick’s collusion case against the NFL dismissed the league’s bid to have the case thrown out. So, the legal fight will go forward, much to the NFL’s chagrin.
This is terrible news for the NFL. There are already reports that NFL teams indefinitely postponed workouts with Kaepernick when he wouldn’t commit to ending his protest, and, thanks to the Wall Street Journal, we know how much Trump’s anti-Kaepernick and anti-NFL tweets scared many NFL owners out of even considering signing the former NFC champion quarterback. It’s still tough to prove collusion, but should Kaepernick prevail, the victory could trigger early termination of the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the NFL and the NFLPA. This would be a huge victory for the players, because the current CBA is awful for labor.
“Kaepernick faces an uphill legal battle, but even proceeding to a full hearing amounts to a victory because it allows his lawyers to continue to search for evidence of collusion, while keeping Kaepernick’s name in the news during the NFL season, when attention on football is at its peak,” Ken Belson writes for the New York Times.
This is, perhaps, the most important thing: Kaepernick is in the headlines, atop the billboards, and on the airwaves. He’s everywhere. Having made sure his own dreams were crazy enough; he’s become the NFL’s worst nightmare. And Nike is ensuring he doesn’t go anywhere.