Have you heard of this small outfit making big waves? They’re called Nike and they have… let’s look it up real quick: 36.4 billion in annual revenue, 1,182 retail stores, and 74 advertising agencies they employ. Oh, and also they have a contract with the NFL that runs through 2028. Anyway, they’ve hired Colin Kaepernick — a football player most famous for starting a massive, cultural conversation-dominating debate over his choice to kneel during the national anthem — as a spokesperson. Bold risk for a company full of Oregon lefties, right?
Except it’s not a risk. Or a leap of faith. It’s bold, yes, but calculatingly so. Nike is perhaps one of the most visible brands on this entire planet. So when they make someone their spokesperson, when they call out the bravery of a man whose protest has been falsely equated with being anti-anthem, anti-flag, anti-America, anti-Pat Tillman, and anti…soldiers from WWII? you’d better believe: They know what they’re about. They’ve seen the idiotic alt-right memes. They’ve heard Kaep attacked on national television, and they’ve decided: Yeah, we’re doing this.
Nike, a company whose brand identity alone is valued at 27 billion dollars, has made what was surely a very thoroughly researched, computer-analyzed risk to hire a man who has been absolutely pilloried over the course of three years. A man who is suing the NFL (one of Nike’s most visible partners). A man who has been attacked by the president himself.
You want a silver lining in 2018? There you go. You want hope for the future? You just found it. Not “international conglomerate does what’s right,” but “international conglomerate — whose most famous spokesperson once said ‘Republicans buy shoes too‘ as a way to excuse not speaking out against an avowed racist — recognizes that to capture the loyalty of future generations, it’s a no-brainer to have a revolutionary who didn’t play a down last year on their side.”
This isn’t something to be jaded over. It’s enormous.
The tweet above, by a woman whose entire career arc shifted because of her support of Kaepernick, is more significant than people realize. Once upon a time, Nike really was just an upstart Oregon-based brand. Their first shoe sole was pressed on a waffle iron. Then Michael Jordan came along, just four years after the company went public. In that era, Jordan was the revolutionary — a black athlete opposing the strictures of a league that was owned exclusively by white men. His fight? Having red on his shoes when NBA brass wanted everyone to stick to black and white. If the apocryphal stories are true, Nike heard about the shoe “ban” and began paying Jordan’s $5,000 per game fine. Looked at through the right lens, this was a precursor to Kaepernick. It was a company siding with a black athlete in the face of stodgy white men. But Nike is a different company now. They’re huge and while one ad campaign probably couldn’t break them, it certainly could get some executives fired.
That’s not to take the wind out of the feelgood Kaepernick story, it’s to enhance it. It’s to say: This way is even better because Nike surely made predictions as to how this would play out. Someone in Risk Assesment likely foretold that the president would say it sent a “terrible message.” An algorithm probably anticipated a short-term stock tumble. Some genius intern with knowledge of how the right loves to own the libs on Twitter might have even joked about adult males cutting logos off of the socks they’d already paid for. And Nike just did it.
They hired Kaep because they knew that every dollar they lost from triggered middle-aged white men would pay triple in revenue from young, politically-minded Americans who believe in a diverse, equitable future in which protest is recognized for what it is (and always has been): A motor that pushes society along in its gradual arc toward justice for all. Nike made their gambit with knowledge and intention. They were seven moves ahead. They saw the millions upon millions in free ad revenue. They saw how it would send a message to the NFL about who really held the sway in that relationship. They envisioned the teens who were on the fence about them, who knew that Steph was with Under Armor and Yeezy was with Adidas, and they reached out to them with a man who stood for something by kneeling.
Nike supporting Kaepernick was the right call on literally every level. It was a business move and a razor-sharp one. As such, it’s a lighthouse during these stormy years, reminding us that a change is going to come. Or rather that it has come to the young people who make a consumer brand cool. Maybe that change hasn’t yet shifted the thinking of old racists who try to twist kneeling as a protest into a disrespect of the flag. Maybe it never will. But Nike doesn’t care about them. That’s the message: “Yes, we get that you’re upset, but we’re better off without you.”
The brand that Mike built just pushed its chips in on a guy who will forever be known for taking a knee more than taking a snap. Yes, it was “the right thing to do,” but it was also the right thing to do. A harbinger of a better future. A beacon of hope in troubled times.