Colin Kaepernick is out of the NFL but he is more powerful than ever

Far from being forced to the sidelines of national debate since leaving the 49ers, the quarterback’s Nike campaign shows his voice cannot be ignored

More than 20 months have passed since Colin Kaepernick played in an NFL game, but the most famous unemployed man in America continues to cast an outsized shadow over the country’s richest sports league and the culture at large. That influence was given mainstream corporate backing on Monday when Nike confirmed that Kaepernick would be the face of a new ad campaign for the 30th anniversary of their ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

The big reveal ahead of the NFL’s regular-season opener on Thursday night came as more of a surprise than it should have, given the lengthy track record of the sports apparel company, which has been out in front of social trends for decades. Nike put money behind prominent African American coaches like Georgetown’s John Thompson before doing so was popular. They made a black teenager the face of their company when Tiger Woods turned professional with the provocative Hello World campaign that sparked controversy (and, lest we forget, even boycotts) by leaning into America’s thorny racist past.They made Spike Lee’s Mars Blackmon character the face of an Air Jordan campaign, throwing their support behind a 30-year-old black filmmaker who challenged America to wake up with desperate urgency, showing us the right thing isn’t always the easy thing. Now three decades on, they’ve aligned themselves with a 30-year-old black quarterback who’s done the same thing with his silent protest against police violence, one that’s ushered in an era of athlete activism unprecedented since the 1960s.

What these signposts all have in common is that they are social statements, not political ones. Nike don’t answer to Fox News. They don’t answer to Donald Trump. They answer to the consumer. And the broader implication of their decision to stand with Kaepernick is evidence of what we already know: the #MAGA crowd are vocal but they are a minority. Nike may be brave but they’re not stupid. They know the number of those who will be aggrieved by Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick is small on a global scale, even if it costs the company a few points on their stock in the short-term (the company’s share price fell 2% on Tuesday). On Tuesday, some people posted videos of themselves burning Nike products on social media, but huge numbers of Americans are with Kaepernick. Look no further than the ovation he received on Friday night at Arthur Ashe Stadium when he was shown on the JumboTron raising his fist as Serena and Venus Williams faced off at the US Open.

The NFL won’t die because of Colin Kaepernick – the concussion epidemic, maybe, but that’s a different issue – yet it has bungled its handling of the issues he has raised. The league may have the smartest marketing people in the business, but the cabal of billionaire owners continue to demonstrate they’re so out of touch it’s embarrassing. How quickly could they have avoided their ongoing headache if they’d pulled Kaepernick aside from the beginning, made a good-faith effort to understand the issues of police brutality and pledged, say, to match every donation made by a player to social justice causes? He succeeded by starting a conversation, but now the free-agent quarterback is more powerful than ever.Last week Kaepernick won a legal victory in his grievance against the NFL, in which he alleges the owners have conspired to keep him off the field because of his protests, when an arbitrator denied the league’s request to throw out the case. Proving collusion by the league’s 32 owners will not be easy due to the high legal standard of the claim, but the decision by one of the NFL’s top partners to make Kaepernick the face of a prominent campaign won’t do much to back up the argument that he is radioactive for business.

Two years after Kaepernick, following a dialogue with a military veteran, first knelt during the Star-Spangled Banner, American news organizations continue to a mischaracterize the movement he launched as “anthem protests”. But that’s an intellectually dishonest sleight of hand intended to divert the conversation from state violence, a misdirection seized on time and again by America’s president. They have actively framed Kaepernick’s actions as inconsistent with patriotism when in fact patriotism is at the movement’s very essence. It’s also codified in the document comprising America’s DNA: the belief in a more perfect union. That we can always do better. That without struggle there is no progress. That the job is never done.

Which makes Monday’s announcement a triumph for clarity over obfuscation, for advancement over regression. For many, what it means to be an American is less and less some dude riding a tractor and more Kaepernick and Serena and LeBron. That’s what the people burning their shoes on Tuesday are upset about. For all the bluster about respecting the flag, they have never been more nakedly exposed: it’s quite obviously not about respecting anything at all.



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