Aidan Smith: Nike hiring Kaepernick is business, not brave

A billboard featuring Colin Kaepernick is displayed on the roof of the Nike Store in San Francisco, California.  Pic: Getty
A billboard featuring Colin Kaepernick is displayed on the roof of the Nike Store in San Francisco, California. Pic: Getty
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Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but life was so much simpler when I was a lad. There was no sweatshop-produced sports footwear. There was no celebrity-endorsed sports footwear. There was no politically-contentious sports footwear.

For me and my mother, who was forking out for my first pair of football boots, there was School Exchange and there was Woolworth’s. School Exchange was a second-hand emporium for cast-off kit which mainly served the fee-paying academies. Ignorant of their preferences for rugger, this state-school keelie turned up for his first training session in a pair of what – even then, footer boots not yet ballet pumps – must have resembled the kind of things which keep deep-sea divers firmly planted to the seabed. Before the laughter of my chums had died down, I turned to the great provider and said: “Right, Mum, get me along to Woolies. On reflection, I think I need their boots, no matter how plasticky they look, no matter that the thick red band of branding makes it seem like they’ve been strapped up with tape, because, really, branding won’t be a thing for at least another decade. Just do it.”

Nike have been applauded for a political gesture, but this isn’t activism, it’s good old capitalism

OK, I didn’t say “Just do it” because that’s a Nike slogan and the swoosh wouldn’t be a thing for a decade after that. If I’d dreamed up “Just do it” some 20 years before the marketing whizzes who did, I’d be rich and not them. Now I’m poor because my own son is a walking advertisement for this corporate monster. “Nike are too big,” I tell him. “They’re not cool. The swoosh is a tidal wave engulfing us all. Why don’t you save yourself by shinning up a conveniently-situated tree of individualism in a pair of cheap but sturdy supermarket trainers?” But my suggestion falls on deaf ears.

Look at Nike now, though. They’ve got the knee guy. Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who knelt during America’s national anthem in protest at police killings of unarmed black people and other racial injustices. “The most divisive American athlete of his generation,” the New York Times called him the other day, and to mark the 30th anniversary of “Just do it” he’s been signed up by Nike for a lucrative deal to produce clothing in his name and image. There’s edgy. There’s provocative. There’s socking it to Adidas.

Nike have been praised for their boldness with this campaign, but come on: the boldness was all Kaepernick’s and it still belongs to him. He took the stand by not standing. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people,” he said. “It would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are people getting away with murder.”

Other NFL stars took the knee and Donald Trump called the protestors “sons of bitches”. The president suggested to Kaepernick he should “find a country that works better for him”. Kaepernick couldn’t find a team after that, the NFL pretty much locking him out. Not the first black athlete to suffer this fate, the former San Francisco 49er is challenging owners to deny they’re ganging up to prevent him moving elsewhere.

The slogan on the Kaepernick posters is “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Kaepernick, without a throwing gig, gets called un-American by what is known as the “Trumpenproletariat”. Regular guys in sneakers are outraged twice over. First by the kneeling; second by the choice of words. Real sacrifice is made by US troops, they say. God bless America and our brave boys. And get these darned Nikes out of the house. Some have been taken to the yard and burned, which presumably wasn’t the company’s intention when they made Kaepernick their offer.

Or was it? When John Lennon declared that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, copies of Help! and A Hard Day’s Night were torched by America’s moral majority and, who knows, maybe it’s their grandchildren who are taking a match to the swoosh. But that didn’t do the Fab Four any lasting harm and perhaps Nike think the Kaepernick tie-up makes them dangerous.

A cynical view? Well, don’t tell me this isn’t about selling more sportswear. The campaign isn’t a charitable act or a selfless one. Nike have been applauded for a political gesture, sport and politics not seeming to mix before, but this isn’t activism, it’s good old capitalism, same as always.

Nike are “bigger than Adidas” – last year, the latter achieved US sales of $5.3 billion, compared with the former’s $15.2bn – but Adidas have the heritage. Jesse Owens raced to four golds at the Berlin Olympics in shoes made by founder Adi Dassler. 1980s-set youth-oriented movies invariably feature the three stripes.

Through Run DMC and the Beastie Boys, Adidas are part of hip-hop history. Kanye West, a fairly influential fellow these days, is an Adidas man. Which rival firm wouldn’t be envious of all of this, no matter that their logo is omnipresent, and seek to create a different kind of cachet for themselves?

Nike could do with it when you think of their sweatshops and the sexism charges, with the company exposed for allowing discrimination and harassment towards women. They’re not the only monster brand who’ve ever been accused of lousy work practices but here they seem to be portraying themselves as almost niche, a little guy taking on the establishment when the truth is that, with $15.2bn sales, it’s they who are the establishment, and certainly not some wild rebel.

This will probably fly. Once the smoke has died down from those burning trainers – and after an initial drop in the share price, the Kaepernick campaign generated $43 million in media coverage in 24 hours – Nike should sell even more to millennials. And I repeat: that’s what this is about. Not politics but commerce. But at least the slogan is good. A lot snappier than Trump’s response. “I think it’s a terrible message that they’re sending,” he said, “and the purpose of them doing it, maybe there’s a reason for them doing it, but I think as far as sending a message, I think it’s a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent.” Got that?