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Why the Colin Kaepernick Nike advert is important

Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the American anthem is a defining social moment in the era of modern sport

Kaepernick’s story is yet another example of how the struggle for basic human freedoms continues to polarise the powerful and the powerless. And this is 2018.

As the controversy over Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee during the American national anthem at NFL fixtures to protest against police brutality and racial discrimination continues to rumble on two seasons later, one thing has become clear: this could (and perhaps should) become a defining social moment of the 21st century.

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback has found himself a central talking point in US president Donald Trump’s rhetoric, as the number one Republican attempts to appeal to his central fan base: notably militarily-inclined Americans who see Kaepernick’s actions as a slap in the face of the flag and country they’ve served.

But (mixed sports metaphor coming up) right off the bat it’s important to mention that Kaepernick’s decision to kneel was actually the idea of a war veteran. Something not all of those acting out of mock outrage at his “anti-American” actions have taken on board.

US Army vet Nate Boyer met with Kaepernick after originally lambasting the quarterback for displaying an aggressively anti-American sentiment in 2016. But once Boyer met, talked with and listened to Kaepernick, Boyer was the one who suggested taking a knee rather than sitting the anthem out all together. It’s a move that’s sparked widespread kneeling protests across the USA. And the NFL is yet to find a way of appeasing both sides of the argument: for those that want to kneel to protest and those who do not.

Now Nike has joined the debate, and it’s no secret who they’re backing. The sportswear giant’s decision to publicly endorse Kaepernick is monumental for a number of reasons.

Kaepernick’s story is yet another example of how the struggle for basic human freedoms continues to polarise the powerful and the powerless. And this is 2018.

Cynicism aside, Nike is actually taking a stand.

Nike does have an history of cerebrally backing winners and strategically (if not cynically) endorsing athletes who stand out against the grain in order to promote themselves as the “good guys”. Call it the victory of goodness campaign if you will.

It’s no coincidence that Nike’s sales have grown by 31 per cent since they released the video ads with Kaepernick’s voice over, and the giant billboard ads which read, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Call it savvy marketing, call it capitalism at its most exploitative — both of which it probably is. But what it is not, is backing down from a heated debate that involves even the highest authority in the American land.

The American president recently said, in typical toys-out-the-pram rather than reasoned style, ““I think it’s a terrible message that [Nike] are sending 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. There’s no reason for it.”

On the contrary, there’s every reason for it. Or so the Nike advertising team seem to think. And if they’re backing a side that doesn’t have the president, it’s got to be a fight worth getting involved in.

Sport should be a vehicle for change.

It should not, as it has recently been used by Serena Williams, be used as a stage to flaunt your superiority and imperviousness to professional decorum. Turning a temper tantrum into a misjudged effort to discuss gender equality is not the privilege of the sportsman.

While it could be argued that Kaepernick is no longer a “sportsman” given his status now, and the amount of admirable charity work he’s known for, he used the exalted platform that a major sporting franchise afforded him and used it to make a positive statement for change. Too many sports professionals are too readily tarred with the same unintelligible brush. Which is just not right. Especially in this instance.

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It shows how divided America is.

The staggering thing about this whole furore is that the profile of the opposition to Kaepernick’s taking-a-knee is, generally speaking, sadly a stereotypical one. Middle American. Military service. Republican voter. And their to the former full-back asking for the authorities to reconsider their methods, as numerous YouTube uploads shows, is to burn either Nike sneakers, socks or jerseys with Kaepernick’s name and number 7 on the back.

There’s something painfully ironic here. Rather than donating the clothes to the cause they say they whole-heartedly stand behind — struggling or homeless war vets — they choose to burn them instead, rendering them useless on all fronts. It’s not a statement, it’s stupidity of the lowest order.

And then there’s the recent development that Nike call centre employees have been treated to a torrent of racial abuse for the brand’s endorsemnet of Kaepernick after the president tweeted (with no supporting evidence):

“Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”

A cursory scroll through any form of social media will throw out results on either side of the Kaepernick-Nike debate.

From former congressman Joe Walsh’s: “@WalshFreedom: A week ago, Army Sgt Maj Timothy Bolyard was killed in Afghanistan. Most Americans have no idea who he is. A week ago, Nike made Colin Kaepernick the face of their business. Everybody knows who he is. That's wrong. Timothy Bolyard is a hero. He really did sacrifice everything.”

All the way through to Kevin Weaver, “@kpweaver: A cop broke into a black man's apartment and murdered him, but people are burning their Nikes because Kaepernick tried to tell you all this exact stuff was happening.”

There are echoes of familiarity from an all too recent past to this NFL saga. Muhammad Ali. Nelson Mandela. Rosa Parks. They were castigated by all and sundry at the time of their protests. Trouble makers, anti-patriotic and downright wrong: they were disregarded, shamed by the media and those in authority. And look at how history has turned out there. Kaepernick’s story is yet another example of how the struggle for basic human freedoms continues to polarise the powerful and the powerless. And this is 2018.

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