Every so often sport bursts its banks, spills from its usual courses and goes flooding incontinently onto the news pages. This year we’ve already had Australian cricketers doing unspeakable things with sand-paper, Gareth Southgate’s World Cup waistcoat and the return of Serena Williams to Wimbledon a few months after an emergency caesarean.
And now we have Colin Kaepernick. He is currently an unemployed quarterback of America’s National Football League. He famously — heroically if you like — refused to stand for the pre-game national anthem, in protest against social injustice and police treatment of black people. Many other footballers followed suit. Last season at an NFL game in London between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, around two dozen players ‘took a knee’ during the American anthem.
The protest has caused great angst in the United States. Donald Trump called the kneelers ‘sons of bitches’ and demanded that they be sacked from their NFL teams. Certainly Kaepernick can’t find a job, though some say that is because he is a second-rate quarterback. Martyr or sporting chuck-out?
Nike has made up its corporate mind — and chucked another cartload of newts’ eyes and baboon blood into the cauldron by putting Kaepernick at the centre of its new campaign. The slogan: ‘Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.’ What does that mean, exactly? Kaepernick hasn’t given up everything: he is after all a very well-paid brand ambassador for Nike.
Let’s flashback 30 years, to when Nike built its advertising around the great basketball player Michael Jordan. His nickname: Air Jordan. The name of his shoes? Nike Air. Man and product had become one. Jordan played it resolutely apolitical — never got involved in a single controversy. Just don’t do it. Why was that? ‘Republicans buy sneakers too.’ Jordan says he never said that, and perhaps he didn’t: but it might have served as the motto for his political life.
Now Nike has gone the other way. It has deliberately sought to alienate Republicans, at least those of the far-right. There may be fine and noble causes at stake — racial justice, the end of police brutality, and so on. At bottom, however, the advertising campaign is about selling sneakers. The company has found controversy because it sought controversy. Its campaign has made it into every organ that covers sport or politics, and everybody is talking about the rights and wrongs of Colin Kaepernick’s genuflection.
Trump’s comments that this is ‘a terrible message, a message that shouldn’t be sent’ plays right into Nike’s hands: sucked into the whipped-up controversy, the President is now also in the business of selling sneakers. But he was careful to tone it down just a little, saying that Nike’s exercise of its freedom to make this choice was ‘what this country is all about’. Which can also be taken as an endorsement of Nike: even that Nike has forced the President to see sense on the matter. In publicity — if not yet in sales — it’s a masterstroke.
It’s also what ethologists call distraction display. Stories about Nike’s sweatshops in the developing world have dogged the company for decades, but while Nike are being heroic good guys, people are less likely to want tales of ill-treated workers: Vietnamese less-than-minimum-wage slaves don’t make for cool branding. What would happen if everyone in their factories chose to take a knee?
Nike are celebrating the 30th anniversary of their famous slogan ‘Just do it’. Trump supporters are already making a public fuss of setting their Nike gear alight and tweeting #JustBurnIt to each other. So Nike equals righteousness — right? This is sport, remember: a world in which we instinctively prefer binary judgments to moral ambiguities.
Perhaps it will turn out to be the most brilliant marketing move of all time: one apparently based on the notion that in a global market, people will go out of their way to support an organisation that annoys Trump.
Sport dramatises issues: Kaepernick tapped into that eternal truth with astuteness, audacity and style when he first made his own protest. At the Mexico Olympic Games of 1968, the American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists during their national anthem, to demonstrate equivocal feelings about their nation. This is now the classic example of the way sport can dramatise non-sporting issues: and — belatedly — it has become an emblem of American courage and freedom.
The take-a-knee protest is from the same stable: free speech as enshrined in the American constitution, expressed in the drama of sport, before the sporting audiences of America and the world. So far, so democratic. What Nike have done is monetise it. It’s a fascinating development.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.