Colin Kaepernick
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Colin Kaepernick's Big Return

Ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the most politically polarizing American sports figure since Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army half a century ago, so Nike must have known all hell would break loose when the news dropped Monday that he’s one of the faces of the 30th-anniversary edition of the company’s “Just Do It” ad campaign. In the teaser image, he’s staring at us with saintly taciturnity. Slogan: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Kaepernick, as you undoubtedly know, hasn’t played football since he opted for free agency after the 49ers’ dismal 2-14 record for the 2016 season. Nobody remembers his stats, though, because that season was all about him deciding to take a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and other gross inequities directed at African Americans. Early on, Kaepernick sat instead of kneeling, but he soon took ex-Seattle Seahawk (and ex-Green Beret) Nate Boyer’s advice that taking a knee looked less disrespectful. In any case, he didn’t make a big deal of it—no manifestoes, no prior alerts to the press. He just waited for people to notice what he was doing, which they did.
Soon, other players across the league were mimicking him. But the controversy didn’t really ignite until the 2017 season, when coaches and even the occasional team owner joined the defiant ones, while Kaepernick himself—who’d gone unsigned by any NFL franchise, despite still being in his professional prime—grew omnipresent in his absence. The big difference, needless to say, was that Donald Trump by then was President of the United States. There’s no such thing as an issue that Trump can’t turn into a dumpster fire.

In case you’ve forgotten, he sent Mike Pence to a Colts-49ers game in Indianapolis just so that Pence could ostentatiously walk out when players knelt during the anthem. (Cost to the taxpayers was around $250,000; Pence’s press pool was told not to bother tagging along with the Veep into the stadium, since they’d all be leaving soon anyway.) Trump tweeted dozens of times about the insult to the anthem and Old Glory and the league’s gutless tolerance of same. He asked an Alabama rally, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’”
By ignoring the injustices against African Americans that motivated the protests—which makes sense, because he’s in favor of them—Trump redefined the players’ stance as lack of patriotism, pure and simple. But that was what it looked like, anyhow, to millions of (mostly white) Americans, many of whom genuinely consider the National Anthem sacred—and never ask themselves why sports events are suitable showcases for demonstrating our collective fealty to God’s favorite country, its military and the red, white and blue to begin with. It didn’t matter how patiently Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, among others, tried to drag our attention back to the stats documenting the lopsided racial disparities in police killings and mass incarceration. As far as Trumplandia was concerned, he was just another overpaid athlete who ought to be grateful for his good fortune, instead of getting uppity.

Kaepernick, meanwhile, hasn’t been getting paid at all. But he hasn’t reinvented himself as a full-time activist, either, most likely because that would mean saying goodbye to what he still wants to do most: play football. His steadfast silence has turned out to be more eloquent than anything he could possibly say. Even when GQ put him on its cover as “Citizen of the Year” in 2017, the magazine had to settle for a photo shoot without an accompanying interview. He only ever makes news thanks to the grievance he’s filed against the NFL that charges its owners with colluding to blackball him, but it’s not like he’s exactly been hounding the media to let him tell his side of the story.

His two years of omnipresent absence do a lot to make his Nike ad even more explosive. Projecting a brash disregard for consequences has always been vital to the brand’s sales pitch, but this goes beyond impudence. It’s the corporate equivalent of punching Trumplandia right in the face, and at least in the short term, Nike has already paid a price for it. The #BoycottNike hashtag went viral instantly, along with videos of people setting their treasonous footwear on fire or hacking the vile Nike logo out of their socks. Maybe more consequentially, the company’s stock-market shares slipped, too, although we won’t be totally surprised if they soon bounce right back up again.

Nike has upped the ante by putting Kaepernick’s face, along with its money, where its mouth is.

Still, Nike had to have anticipated the antagonistic reaction, and possibly even welcomed it. This isn’t like Pepsi getting blindsided by Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video and yanking its tie-in ad campaign in more innocent times. Everyone knows what Colin Kaepernick represents in today’s America, and nobody is under any illusion that Nike isn’t drawing a line in the sand by endorsing him—even though, technically, he’s the one endorsing them. If it’s a risky-looking move, it’s also the logical next step in corporate America’s unlikely emergence on, more often than not, the progressive side of the culture wars.

If the likes of Chick-fil-A don’t mind being seen as homophobic because they calculate their customers mostly feel the same way, many more companies with nationwide brands push back against antigay legislation because they’ve decided that’s better for their image—and their profits—in the long run. The same goes for being anti-racist, which is why ABC wasted no time canning Roseanne last spring. Nike has upped the ante by putting Kaepernick’s face, along with its money, where its mouth is. But does anyone think they’d have done so if Trump’s poll numbers weren’t so rotten?

Alienating a minority of your customers can look like a smart gamble if the reward is to thrill the majority of them, and let’s not forget that Nike’s market skews young, as well as diverse. It’s also international, virtually guaranteeing that enthusiasm abroad will more than make up for any fallout at home. As for Kaepernick, what he gets out of it isn’t vindication, exactly; at a personal level, he obviously doesn’t need any. The paradox is that Nike’s backing is a great reminder to us all that Colin Kaepernick is an athlete before he’s anything else, including a born troublemaker.