Mildred: “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
Johnny: “Whaddaya got?”
— The Wild One, 1953
There are reasons to be upset with Nike.
The shoes and other athletic apparel made by the multi-national giant cost way too freaking much. Which is even more infuriating when one of the occasional reports come out of how they are made super-cheap in Third World sweatshops.
The company has swung back and forth over the years on drafting, imposing and being transparent about how the factories it contracts with — like a lot of big boys, such as Apple, Nike doesn’t actually own those factories — pays and treats workers. Stories about horrid working conditions have never completely gone away. Neither have complaints about low pay and abandoning whole workforces, enough to motivate not only protests but decisions by a few big time universities to end their deal with Nike and go to, say Under Armor.
But the official outfitter of the National Football League does not deserve the grief it is getting over its decision to make former quarterback Colin Kaepernick one of the faces of its new “Just Do It” ad blitz. Tagline: "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
The best response, as is often the case, came fast and furious from The Onion, the satirical news outfit that is having a hard time keeping up with the absurdity of reality. They created a fake ad campaign featuring some of the police officers who have killed black men. The tagline is “Believe You’ll Walk Away Scot-Free.”
The burst of attention flows from how riven the nation is over the campaign Kaepernick launched for NFL players to kneel during the playing of the national anthem. The plain and simple fact, utterly clear since the beginning, is that the are quietly registering a real concern about a real issue. They are steamed about how too many black people, usually unarmed youths, have been hassled, arrested, beaten and killed by police officers across the country, most of the time without any repercussions or even much apparent oversight.
That would be pretty simple and straightforward, though perhaps not very effective, except for the fact that so many people across the country — up to and including the occupant of the Awful Office — have either ignorantly or willfully mischaracterized the nature of Kaepernick’s message. To the point that he can’t even get a try-out with any team, some of whom quite obviously need a new QB.
All the claims that the dropping to one knee during the playing of the anthem is a statement against the flag, the nation or current or past members of the armed services who have defended both are false. That’s false. As in wrong, mistaken or, far too often, a lie.
Kaepernick and his allies have made the point repeatedly for anyone interested in listening. And no matter what anyone, even the nation’s propagandist in chief, tries to tell you, all protesters get to define what it is they are protesting.
And it should be clear that kneeling is about the most respectful gesture the human body is capable of. It’s not a violent act. It is a plea, a supplication, seeking a redress of grievances from a nation that, the protesters are stressing, is better than this and should start living up to its own standards.
The calls for shoe buyers to boycott Nike, the images of folks cutting up their socks and setting their shoes on fire, are expressions of willful pig-ignorance.
That’s what the players are protesting. That’s a protest Nike wishes to be associated with. Clearly, like everything else such entities do, it is a business-driven, profit-centric decision. A decision based on the reaction it thinks it will get from its target market: young, urban and multicultural. People who, Nike thinks, will reward this act of corporate decency by buying more shoes. People who, to the great consternation of some, personify the future of America.
As I’ve said before, in regard to politicians, what matters is not just what you think of them, but what they think of you. In this particular case, Nike thinks we, enough of us, aren’t stupid. Good for them. And for us.
George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Tribune, grew up thinking football players were dumb and mean. He may have been wrong. firstname.lastname@example.org