Nike has gotten itself embroiled in controversy with the start of its series of ads for its 30th anniversary. The company revealed the face of its 30th anniversary campaign with an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick with the slogan "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything" and of course, "#JustDoIt."
Kaepernick has been at the center of controversy since the 2016 NFL preseason where he decided initially to sit during the national anthem as a means of protesting the treatment of minorities, especially by police. After discussions with a former U.S. Army member and fellow NFL player, Nate Boyer, he decided to kneel in protest before the games as that would be more respectful than simply sitting. Kaepernick's protest was joined by many others over the 2016, 2017, and 2018 seasons, to the ire of many including the president. Kaepernick opted out of his contract in 2017 and is not currently signed by any team. He has filed a grievance with the NFL alleging the owners colluded to keep him out of the league.
The announcement of Kaepernick as a spokesperson has prompted many to take to social media in protest, destroying and even burning their Nike products, calling for a boycott of their products and leading to the creation of the #JustBurnIt hastag.
The controversy surrounding Kaepernick and the backlash from the Nike endorsement reveals a few ugly truths and hypocrisies in our culture.
We first see a very familiar refrain indicating there is only one correct way to serve our country. This is the nationalistic streak that wells up around this issue and a confusion regarding what the flag and the anthem represent. We've seen repeated references to how keeling for the flag disrespects the military (as there are many people who assume the flag represents those serving or who have served), despite the fact that Kaepernick knelt after discussion with a veteran over what would be respectful. And there have been many trying to alter the Nike ad to honor Pat Tillman, a more "respectable" hero. It seems that the suggestion is that the only way to "properly" serve your country is through the military and to afford our country every respect, not matter what the country does.
This, however, does not match the symbolism of the flag or anthem, nor does it match the needs of the country. The flag and the anthem represent our country, not the military. Yes, the military sacrificed for the flag, but there are others who have never worn a uniform that sacrificed everything for our country to hold it to its ideals, including those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. Those serving in the military deserve our respect, but so do those private citizens. We need both. The soldier protecting our liberties, acting as our defender, and the activist holding the mirror to our society, acting as our social conscience. We need the Rosa Parks, the Martin Luther King Jr.s, the Cesar Chavezs, the Bayard Rustins. Those who are willing to push us towards our ideals as a society, regardless of the cost. And we need every soldier in the fields, sea, and air who protect us and act to serve liberty and justice, no matter the cost.
Kaepernick represents a very interesting flashpoint for this controversy. By all other accounts, his character is of the type that would be celebrated by the very ones that are decrying him. Raised by adopted parents and an outspoken Christian. Baptized Methodist, confirmed Lutheran, and a Baptist attender, he has been outspoken about his faith. "My faith is the basis from where my game comes from. I've been very blessed to have the talent to play the game that I do and be successful at it. I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the rights steps and has helped me to get to where I'm at. When I step on the field, I always say a prayer, say I am thankful to be able to wake up that morning and go out there and try to glorify the Lord with what I do on the field. I think if you go out and try to do that, no matter what you do on the field, you can be happy about what you did." He has multiple tattoos, including several Bible verses, such as Psalm 18:39, Psalm 27:3, along with "To God The Glory", "Faith", "Heaven Sent", and "God Will Guide Me." "God has brought me this far. He has laid out a phenomenal plan for me. And I can't do anything but thank Him." After he started kneeling, he pledged to donate one million dollars to organizations working in oppressed communities. In 2018 he announced that the final $100,000 would be in the form of $10,000 donations to charities that would be matched by celebrities. He has been recognized by Amnesty International with their Ambassador of Conscience Award, awarded to those who speak out for justice.
In another world, Kaepernick would be celebrated for his character and philanthropy. But he made the mistake of speaking out about the thing no one wanted to discuss. Of speaking out in an "inappropriate way."
Which brings up the second ugly truth that has been revealed.
We also see a strain that believes there is really only one way to protest and that is not at all. Or at least, not in any visible way. Not in any way that could make someone uncomfortable. Kaepernick and those that have been kneeling have been engaging in the most peaceful and non-violent form of protest possible. Those who believe this type of protest is inappropriate have offered no other viable suggestion, nor do they recognize that this type of protest has been going on for a long time and has been Constitutionally blessed. It is even recognized as a vital protest for religious reasons. Since 1943 with West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, we have recognized that there can be no requirement that anyone stand for the Pledge of Allegiance (or the anthem by extension). The Supreme Court recognized that there are valid religious reasons that would prohibit the standing for a pledge. The case involved Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse to pledge to anything but God Himself. And to protect their religious liberty and right to sit and not participate during the pledge, the Court struck down a law requiring the pledge and flag-saluting. It is therefore valid speech on religious grounds and valid speech for protest. Particularly when you are looking to protest the actions of the country itself. What other method would be acceptable? The most common refrain that I hear in response to this question is some form of activism and charity, but Kaepernick is doing that as well. It's just the kneeling that is too visible, too noticeable that is a problem.
Yes, it has been visible. Very visible. That is the point. It's the same reason everyone who is now going to boycott Nike has blasted their message wide on social media. Everyone has posted pictures of their destroyed Nike products or has posted a status that they will never buy another Nike product - a protest loses much of its power if it is not seen by those who have the power to make a change. If it somehow does not affect them.
Which brings us to the hypocrisy in this counter protest of Nike.
It is very interesting that this is what brings us to protest Nike. This is the bridge too far. Where are the protests for the thousands of people working in sweatshops to make Nike products? Or for their use of child labor in Cambodia and Pakistan, with some working seven days a week for sixteen hours a day? Do those workers and children not matter? If not, why not? Should we protest their use of tax loopholes revealed in the Paradise Papers, allowing them to underpay taxes in the European Union and to charge its European headquarters $3.86 billion in royalties?
Why are we more concerned with the apparent form of Kaepernick's "disrespect" than the content of his character? Similarly, why does Nike's use of a spokesperson we disagree with matter more than their troubling business practices? "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness." Matthew 23:27.
Further, and to me, perhaps more troubling, why is it acceptable to destroy that which you do not agree with instead of allowing someone else to put it to use? Why is the initial response to cut, to burn, or to destroy Nike products? It's one thing to disagree with a direction of a company and to boycott or disassociate with it. But there are many uses for those products you are destroying that could be beneficial to society. Donate them to a homeless shelter or to a clothing charity. Perhaps find a way to get them to homeless veterans. Give them to people in your community that you know have need or to a local charity like the The Helping Place. Stand your ground, but do something beneficial; don't destroy. Even police stations have gotten in on this type of request, with Hillsboro, NC asking people to bring the products to them, instead of destroying them.
We have to get better at being able to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. To recognize and validate differences of opinion without resorting to destruction. To give other people a little more benefit of the doubt and to scrutinize our own motives and actions a little more closely.
To be charitable and love each other.
Just do it.