On September 3, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick signed a multi-year advertising deal with Nike—a move that could both legitimatize Kaepernick’s racial justice activism, but also paper over the company’s shoddy human rights record. The deal makes Kaepernick, who has remained an unsigned free agent since 2016, a face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. Nike will unveil a new product line of Kaepernick clothing, including a shoe and a T-shirt. It will also donate to Kaepernick’s “Know Your Rights” campaign that instructs young people—particularly in communities of color—in how to deal with law enforcement officials.
I admire Kaepernick as an athlete and as a courageous political activist who in 2016 catalyzed a movement with his bold act of taking a knee during the national anthem prior to NFL games. Trump has tried to twist the protest as being against the anthem and against the military, but players knew that it was directed against racism in general, and racial profiling and police brutality in particular.
Nike's move is good for Kaepernick. He needs a job since he’s been blacklisted by every NFL team. (The former quarterback has accused the NFL of conspiring to keep him from playing in the league. On Thursday, an arbitrator let his case advance.) Kaepernick’s association with Nike may even undermine some of the hostility against him by people who were persuaded by Trump and others that his protest was unpatriotic. Now, by hiring Kaepernick, Nike is telling people that protest is OK: “Just do it!”
So, in this way, Nike is taking sides with protesting NFL players and their supporters. It is a rebuke to Trump. That's great. Nike is more popular than Trump by a long shot.
But, of course, not everyone was happy with Nike’s decision. Some folks who opposed Kaepernick’s protest posted videos and photographs of them burning and otherwise destroying their Nike clothing and even warned of waging a boycott against the company.
In fact, Nike is playing both sides. Kaepernick won’t be on the field wearing an NFL uniform. But the company supplies the 32 NFL teams with game-day uniforms and sideline apparel with its famous “swoosh” logo. It recently extended its contract through 2028.
Nike has certainly calculated that hiring Kaepernick is good for the company image and profits by stoking its reputation as rebellious and hip, especially among its core customer base of young people.
But is it good for social and racial justice?
Nike unveiled its first Kaepernick ad on Monday—a black-and-white photograph of his face with copy that reads: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
It is ironic that Nike debuted its Kaepernick campaign on Labor Day, because Nike is a global exploiter of vulnerable workers, disproportionately young women. Lots of human rights groups have documented that Nike makes most of its clothing in Asian sweatshops.
So one might view Nike’s hiring of Kaepernick as a cynical ploy to cleanse its reputation. That is one of the contradictions raised by Anand Giridharadas in his new book Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. Giridharadas challenges the very idea of “corporate social responsibility” by global firms and their billionaire owners who claim they can do well by doing good, including donating a small slice of their wealth to philanthropic endeavors. In fact, Nike and its founder Philip Knight have consistently resisted efforts to improve conditions in the sweatshops that manufacture Nike apparel, making changes only after human-rights groups have shown a spotlight on the workers’ plight and the company’s hypocrisy.
I hope Kaepernick will contact the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and its executive director Scott Nova and ask for a background briefing about the plight of Nike workers around the world. The WRC has worked with anti-sweatshop activists on campuses and around the world to put a spotlight on Nike’s abuses and has actually won some victories.
But it’s safe to assume Kaepernick had to sign a non-disclosure agreement that he wouldn’t publicly criticize Nike. So any idea that he might lead a delegation of pro athletes and human-rights activists to investigate Nike’s sweatshops is probably wishful thinking. I hope I’m wrong, because I respect Kaepernick’s integrity. As the Nike ad notes, he’s already made many sacrifices—jeopardizing his career as a pro athlete—in order to speak truth to power. What sacrifices will Knight and Nike’s other top brass make to address the plight of the Asian workers who make the company’s sneakers but can’t afford to buy them?
If, by hiring Kaepernick, Nike is legitimating protest, that's great. So it shouldn't complain if people protest at Nike headquarters, stores, overseas factories, and Knight’s home about its mistreatment of workers toiling in sweatshops!