November 17, 2018

Colin Kaepernick & the Evolving Role of the American Athlete

“From the outset, the reaction to Kaepernick’s involvement with the [Nike] campaign was explosive and unifying in all the ways that have come to define the parameters of reaction culture, online and off. Fissures split along ideological lines: there were people rightly fired up that a major corporation took a stand, however faintly, on such a palpably political issue. The hashtags #ImWithNike and #ImWithKap (or #ImWithKaep) expressed justifiable savor many supporters found in the brand’s devotion to Kaepernick’s crusade; celebrities like Ava DuVernay, Diddy, and Michael Kelly offered vocal shows of encouragement. Fueled by a kind of obtuse logic, there was also a noticeable mix of veterans and conservatives who called for a boycott of Nike apparel or posted videos of burning shoes. (Twitter being Twitter, these posts immediately set off a wave of comic re-enactments.)

Outspoken athletes have long been central to Nike’s corporate DNA. In its decades-long lifestylization of sports, they’ve teamed with controversy-courters like Andre Agassi and Michael Jordan—each of whom flouted their sport’s dress codes, with Nike’s help—firebrands like John McEnroe, and anchored their future to politically active and increasingly candid athletes such as LeBron James, who has readily shared his distaste for the president and who, this summer, opened a public school for underprivileged kids in his hometown of Akron. (It provides free meals and bicycles to students and guarantees a free tuition to the University of Akron for all graduates, among other stipulations.)

Nike’s teaming with Kaepernick, however, is of a new order; it translates as a strategic gamble—yesterday’s 3 percent dip in share prices will likely pale in comparison to the historic gains—but also as a patently unsafe one for a company that often hews toward universally safe moves (Even Nike’s beautifully-executed “Equality” campaign had a bit of an #AllLivesMatter veneer to it). Ours is a time of violent partisan disunity—and major brands electing to take a position feels like a natural, if necessary evolution.”

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