The company that supplies the uniforms for NFL players every week has chosen a player that teams and the league want nothing to do with as its new spokesman. Days after Colin Kaepernick won a legal victory that ensures his collusion case against the NFL will continue, Nike announced that the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback was the face of its 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign.
Announced four days before the NFL season kicks off, the news immediately sparked all kinds of outrage. People burning their clothes, cutting the Nike swooshes off their socks, and generally acting against their own self interest in the ways with which we've become all too familiar.
Nike is already getting a lot of publicity out of this, and is no saintly organization, but even better than watching people light their own money on fire, is witnessing the perhaps unintended consequence that choosing Kaepernick as the face that is associated with their brand will have for the NFL—a major business partner. Colin Kaepernick will now make his way onto every field, every Sunday, and sit on every bench. He will throw every touchdown. And he'll even be on Jerry Jones's sneakers. The NFL has twisted itself into a knot trying to figure out how to handle players protesting and they have screwed up at every turn, and if you thought the anthem policy fiasco was the NFL's biggest blunder, well, now on the eve of a new season, the most talked about and visible football player in America works for Nike, not the league. There is no other way around it: this is humiliating for the NFL, and in response, the league released a very brief and very vague statement.
It didn't have to be this way. Teams have had multiple opportunities to find a roster spot for a quarterback who took his team to the Super Bowl not five years ago. Instead, The Buffalo Bills will start Nathan Peterman as quarterback this Sunday. Brock Osweiler, a quarterback the Houston Texans had to bribe the Cleveland Browns—the Browns!—to take, is in a battle with someone named David Fales for the backup job in Miami. Even if Kaepernick does not win his collusion case against the NFL, some of the names found on these rosters—and those that are missing, like Kaepernick and his former teammate and fellow protester Eric Reid—should give you pause. In a meeting last fall between league officials, owners, and some players, Reid told owners that he felt Kaepernick was being blackballed. The owners, however, were more concerned with placating President Donald Trump who riled up his base and attacked players for kneeling. Trump even specifically said the NFL should have suspended Kaepernick. This was the crisis the NFL wanted to avoid, an outraged cable news viewer who deliberately or ignorantly mischaracterized another American's protest.
Nike's choice of Kaepernick has introduced the newest iteration of this outrage. A good portion of the social media backlash about the Kaepernick ad has focused on Pat Tillman, the former safety for the Arizona Cardinals who left the NFL to serve in the military after 9/11, and was killed by friendly fire in 2004. One might question what this man has to do with Colin Kaepernick? The answer is that the framing of Kaepernick's protest of police brutality and racial inequality during the national anthem as a protest against the anthem and as disrespectful to those who have served our country has reached its logical end point with people suggesting that Pat Tillman—whose family has made it clear they do not want his memory used as a political talking point in this debate—would have been a better choice for Nike's campaign.
This mistakes everything Colin Kaepernick has said and done since the time he first sat down during the anthem. His protest is not about disrespecting the military, it is about racism in this country and how it infects institutions like the police force. In fact, the kneeling that everyone finds so disrespectful was a compromise reached between Kaepernick and former NFL long snapper and Green Beret Nate Boyer.
Kaepernick may not be going off to war to fight for his country, but he is no less a patriot. He is fighting for people who can't fight for themselves, for people who have been killed in cold blood by those who are sworn to protect them. He silently protested because he couldn't "show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color." His protest is a fight for the soul of America, and there is nothing more patriotic.
Both Nike and the NFL looked at the same issue, and came to opposite conclusions. Nike determined publicly aligning with Colin Kaepernick—the figurehead of a movement of increased player activism—and his message of racial justice was good for its brand (despite what you might hear about stock prices), and the NFL has repeatedly viewed player protests as divisive acts to be silenced. It's not often that a brand acting in it's own interest can be portrayed in a positive light, but that's what happens when you go up against the NFL.