Heroes, Sacrifice, Collusion, Capitalism, and the Nike–Kaepernick Ad Campaign

September 16, 2018 Updated: September 16, 2018


Colin Kaepernick, the currently unemployed NFL quarterback most famous for kneeling during the U.S. national anthem, has hit the jackpot. Nike Inc. has unveiled Kaepernick as a featured face in their new ad campaign. While the terms of the contract haven’t yet been released, Nike pays megabucks to the athletes in its ads.

Let’s examine Nike’s decision. First, though, full disclosure: I have never had any monetary relationship with Nike, not even as a consumer. (Why pay several dollars more for a product just because it has a little swoosh on it?) However, I have respected and defended Nike against ignorant attacks against its Third World factories. Nike’s sweatshops have done far more than most, if not all, nonprofits to lift people out of dreadful poverty.

That having been said, Nike’s new ad campaign disappoints me. With so many well-liked great athletes, male and female, in our country, why did Nike choose an athlete as widely disliked as Kaepernick to represent them? The answer: Nike made a cold, calculating, cynical decision. American society is divided and polarized. Nike, of course, didn’t cause the polarization; they simply have made their peace with it and decided to exploit it to the hilt to maximize profits. This is capitalism without conscience in action.

As one commentator shrewdly observed in Business Insider, old white guys aren’t Nike’s target market. Nike correctly calculated that my demographic would howl in protest about the selection of Kaepernick, generating tons of free publicity. Nike also calculated that younger Americans—Nike’s target demographic—would embrace Kaepernick as a symbol of youthful defiance and liberation from the (supposedly) outdated values of their stodgy elders. Defiant rebelliousness is sexy, and that is what Nike is marketing with Kaepernick.

Another aspect of the generation gap that Nike is exploiting is that the American concept of “hero” has changed. In bygone decades, corporations would choose someone universally recognized as a hero to be their public face. Up until the mid- or late-60s, right and wrong were clear-cut and unambiguous. Heroes were the good guys, whether the Lone Rangers, Ozzie Nelsons, and Ward Cleavers of popular entertainment, or the Sgt. Yorks, Lou Gehrigs, and John Glenns of real life.

By the 1970s, though, the era of the anti-hero had dawned. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were thieves, but Hollywood portrayed them as charming and likable. For decades now, popular entertainment and culture have pushed the envelope of decency and morality, gradually eroding the old standards. It has been trendy to mock the “straight and narrow way” as uncool; to depict life as steeped in shades of ethical grayness. The bar is lower for what it takes to be a hero. Voilà, the rise of hero/villains such as Kaepernick.

For me, the disappointment in Nike’s choice of poster boy is compounded by the glib superficiality of the ad campaign’s message. The notion that Kaepernick has been “sacrificing everything” is shamefully dishonest. Whoever wrote and adopted that phrase should spend a couple of hours in Arlington National Cemetery to learn what “sacrificing everything” really means.

What exactly has Kaepernick sacrificed? Certainly not fame and fortune. What about his professional football career? Kaepernick has not “sacrificed” it, but squandered it. He has accused NFL owners of colluding to blackball him from the NFL. This is a dubious assertion. Kaepernick’s hasn’t been sidelined because he knelt during the national anthem. Lots of NFL players have done this repeatedly, yet they continue to play.

He derailed and perhaps permanently forfeited his football career by doing outrageous things such as being photographed wearing “police are pigs” socks. (Can progressives who salute Kaepernick honestly say that you would clamor for the reinstatement of a player who had been as derogatory and condemnatory toward a racial minority as Kaepernick has been to police? Why the exception for that brand of despicable bigotry?)

Put yourself in the shoes of an NFL team owner for a moment. Mindful of the values of your fans and that a significant chunk of them already have boycotted NFL football, you wouldn’t dare to sign a player who has figuratively spat upon our country’s police officers. Besides costing you many fans/customers, the addition of this radioactive player to any NFL locker room would cause intolerable distractions. There is no collusion. Every NFL owner can plainly see the perils of hiring Kaepernick.

One last point about Nike’s choice of Kaepernick: Besides lowering the bar for what constitutes a hero and grossly devaluing the meaning of “sacrificing everything,” the perennial Nike motto “Just do it” seems feeble. In the present context, “just do it” seems to exalt the kind of casual carelessness that Kaepernick has manifested: Don’t pause to consider the ramifications of your actions; just follow your impulses. Frankly, that is a terrible message to convey to young people. We should encourage them to be more thoughtful, not less, about their actions.

As for Kaepernick himself, I haven’t written him off yet. We all make mistakes, especially when we are young and immature. It is possible that as he matures, Kaepernick will see that while he had legitimate concerns, his actions were hurtful, unfair, ineffective, and counterproductive. You don’t promote justice with injustice. You don’t disarm prejudice with prejudice. You don’t build bridges by burning bridges.

The big question about Kaepernick going forward is whether he has room in his heart to let love displace anger and room in his mind for reason to supplant unthinking reactiveness. Will he allow the gall of bitterness to harden him into yet another pathetic hate-America leftist? Or will he awaken to the fact that the United States, despite not yet having completely fulfilled our noble ideals, is still a great country where more has been done for more people than virtually anyplace else on Earth, and where we can accomplish so much more if we work together, in mutual respect?

I hope he can come back from the dark side, although Nike is paying him a ton to be an anti-establishment icon. Good luck, young man.

Dr. Mark Hendrickson is an adjunct professor of economics at Grove City College. He is the author of several books, including “The Big Picture: The Science, Politics, and Economics of Climate Change” (CFACT.org, 2018).

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.