Colin Kaepernick is staring at you.
It’s a black-and-white image, a portrait taken from a distance that feels painfully close, even intimate. Kaepernick, the reviled and revered NFL quarterback who has been unemployed and unemployable since he sparked a movement of athletes and others kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality against African-Americans, watches you with clear eyes and a serious mien.
The text running across his face reads as follows: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Given that Kaepernick has sacrificed a chunk of his physical prime, if not his entire career, on an altar of principle, the ad is undeniably powerful.
Given that 53 percent of Americans say, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll, that it’s never OK to kneel during the anthem, given that Donald Trump has found in black NFL players a useful foil for fanning racial resentments among his perpetually aggrieved white base, it is also undeniably brave.
Not that kneeling is really the issue. Granted, many people think it is, but it isn’t. After all, the same anger directed now at Kaepernick was once directed at Martin Luther King. The problem is not how black people complain, but that they complain at all. That’s why black protest has historically always been condemned as “untimely,” “disrespectful,” “ill-advised” or some other code for, “I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to know.”
As a popular T-shirt puts it: “We march, y’all mad. We sit down, y’all mad. We speak up, y’all mad. We die, y’all silent.”
That’s what makes this new Nike ad, released this week as part of the 30th anniversary commemoration of the company’s iconic “Just Do It” campaign, such a rare act of corporate courage. In endorsing Kaepernick, Nike chooses to see – and asks a resistant nation to see – what many have chosen not to. In placing its credibility behind Kaepernick, it places it behind Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Philando Castile and every black parent who lives in terror that their child might be the next unarmed black person to be killed by police while America gives a collective shrug.
One should always be wary when a corporation sides with a controversial social movement. In the first place, every business has a prime directive, and it is not justice but profit. In the second place, there is always a danger the movement will be co-opted.
But one can’t help being impressed by this, especially since Nike is the official apparel provider for the NFL. The league is being sued by Kaepernick and boycotted by both his supporters and opposition; one would not expect the pigskin poo-bahs to look kindly on a corporate partner sleeping with the enemy.
Predictably, Nike stock fell after the ad came out. Also predictably, the internet has filled with images of people destroying their pricey (and already purchased!) Nike gear in protest. But many of us, let it be said, are heartened – and feeling an unexpected need to buy new Nikes.
Where police brutality is concerned, too many Americans are too skilled in avoidance, in facile, foolish arguments like the one that insists black people keep getting killed only because of some mysterious inability to follow police instructions.
Apparently, some people find it easier to believe that hogwash than to admit this is just a modern iteration of an age-old sin. Colin Kaepernick risked his career to make us see. Now Nike risks its bottom line to support him. But many of us risk nothing but the pain that comes from finally facing the truth with eyes wide open. For them, a simple word of advice:
Just do it.
Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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