In 2016, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick divided a nation when he knelt during the American national anthem in protest of police brutality against African-Americans. While many on the right believed (and hoped) his activism would end his career, he has just been unveiled as one of the faces in Nike's "Just Do It" 30th anniversary campaign, appearing alongside the slogan: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
Over the past two years, Kaepernick truly did sacrifice everything in the name of racial justice. His choice to “take a knee” during the anthem was soon followed by other players, and sparked Donald Trump's wrath, calling those who "disrespect" the US flag "sons of bitches", while demanding that they should be dropped from their teams. Despite this, the 2017 season was marked by numerous protests during the pre-game anthems. Kaepernick has not played in the National Football League (NFL) since last year, since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017, and is suing the organisation, stating that team owners deliberately froze him out because of his activism. The NFL threatened to fine or cut the players who joined them in protest and blackballed his teammate, Eric Reid. Last week, it was ruled that his case against the NFL could go to trial.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
First the NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country. Then Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country
This makes his inclusion a bold move on Nike’s part. While Kaepernick has been involved with Nike since 2011, the new contract is a "wide endorsement", where Kaepernick will have his own branded line, including shoes, shirts, jerseys and more. According to Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports, Kaepernick signed a "star" contract that puts him level with a "top-end NFL player" worth millions per year plus royalties.
Yet, the decision has been met with as much celebration as it has derision. Some conservatives believe his kneeling during the US national anthem was offensive to the country and its veterans. When the advert launched, they began using the #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt hashtags (a play on the company's slogan) on social media, showing themselves destroying their Nike shoes, socks and other wares. Country musician John Rich posted a photo of a pair of socks with the Nike emblem cut off, and a Twitter user named Sean Clancy posted video showing a pair of Nike trainers being set on fire. “First the NFL forces me to choose between my favorite sport and my country. I chose country,” he posted alongside it. “Then Nike forces me to choose between my favorite shoes and my country. Since when did the American Flag and the National Anthem become offensive?” Another Twitter user – with the username AlterAtYeshiva – posted a video of himself placing a number of Nike trainers into a fire pit.
Veterans organisation Vote Vets has urged Nike critics to donate their items, rather than burn them, but, as conservative critics continue to destroy their footwear under the hashtag, the situation can be aptly summarised by one tweet: “The same people saying liberals get offended too easily are literally destroying their wardrobes and cutting the clothes off of their body because a black athlete appeared in one advertisement.” Which, really, says it all.