“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Those are the words across Colin Kaepernick’s face in Nike’s latest black and white ad for the Just Do It company famous for creating athletic apparel. For those who forgot, Kaepernick, a former NFL player, was essentially blacklisted by every team in football for starting the kneeling during the national anthem at games airing on TV, causing an uproar among both defenders and detractors. Kaepernick’s association with Nike must have felt like a way for the company to reach out to the black community, but instead all it has done is produce boycott talks, shoe burnings and a series of memes mocking the “believe in something” slogan. While there is room for a healthy conversation about Nike’s marketing strategy, I would remind people that Nike’s co-founder and shoe creator, Bill Bowerman, would never have supported the spokesperson choice, and while its been 21 years since his death, legacy means something and Nike may have hurt something more than its image with conservatives and flag-wavers; it hurt the brand that the founder worked hard to create.
First off, before anyone accuses me of not understanding the issue, two years ago on the dot, I defended the football star’s right to use his celebrity to express himself, even it does hurt him:
“While I would still stand for the national anthem, and love this country, I do understand [Colin Kaepernick]’s take. He simply sees his celebrity as an opportunity to showcase his beliefs, however unpopular. And that’s all this is, unpopular expression. While true Americans don’t want to see their country disrespected, what Kaepernick is doing is the most American thing he could do, which is to express his frustrations and then move on.” (“Outrageous outrage,” Sept. 7, 2016)
Of course, with controversy comes pushback. College of the Ozarks, a private college in Missouri, announced a removal of Nike branding because of the new marketing campaign.
“In their new ad campaign, we believe Nike executives are promoting an attitude of division and disrespect toward America,” said school President Jerry C. Davis. “If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them. We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”
With that said, many aren’t aware of Nike’s co-founder, Bill Bowerman. He was the track-and-field coach at the University of Oregon from the 1950s to the 1970s, coaching numerous Olympians, including Steve Prefontaine. His coaching life was beautifully chronicled in Robert Towne’s 1998 film Without Limits. He was a commander in the Army during World War II, negotiating a stand-down of German forces in Italy, days before Germany’s removal from Italy. He was a leader. He was a true hero.
He led his “Men of Oregon” to four NCAA team titles but was more than that. A lifelong Republican, he believed that his players should see their effort in sports as the ultimate protest to injustice. He made his players cut their hair so as not to look as if they were protesting the Vietnam War, and during the 1972 Munich Olympics he told his athletes that their job was not to protest but to test their own abilities.
“This killing of Israeli athletes is an act of war. And if there’s one place that war doesn’t belong, it’s here; 1200 years, from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D., your fellow Olympians laid down their arms to take part in these games. They understood there was more honor in out-running a man than in killing him. I hope the competition will resume, and if it does, you must not think that running or throwing or jumping is frivolous. The games were once your fellow Olympians’ answer to war — competition, not conquest. Now, they must be your answer.”
Had Bowerman been around today, he might have supported Kaepernick’s right to protest, but he would not have supported the act itself. He would have told him to play harder. Make your statement by being excellent on the field. That way they can never really touch you.
So while Nike believes it is respecting the present, Nike, in turn, is disrespecting the past.