On Kaepernick, commodification and capitalism

Palm trees frame a large billboard on top of a Nike store that shows former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick at Union Square, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in San Francisco. An endorsement deal between Nike and Colin Kaepernick prompted a flood of debate Tuesday as sports fans reacted to the apparel giant backing an athlete known mainly for starting a wave of protests among NFL players of police brutality, racial inequality and other social issues. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

Last Monday, NFL player turned civil rights advocate Colin Kaepernick tweeted a closeup photo of himself. Under his eyes read a caption: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Under that, the Nike swoosh. On a surface level, the picture and ensuing Nike ad are a noble endorsement of a civil rights icon. When we view them through a broader lens of hypocrisy, commodification and capitalism, a different picture starts to emerge.

First of all, Nike’s support for Kaepernick’s protest is not genuine. Their actions as a company, particularly their treatment of overseas workers, are indicative of their real attitude towards rectifying injustices. Sure, in the past two decades, since initial allegations of labor abuses, Nike has reformed their image. Efforts to increase transparency have earned the company widespread praise. However, they haven’t addressed underlying issues. Nike’s steadily increasing profits haven’t trickled down to their workers in developing nations, who still make far below the living wage. Conditions in factories haven’t improved either: denial of sick leave, the firing of pregnant workers, union busting and various forms of harassment have been uncovered at Nike sites in recent years. Even when change has occurred, it has been motivated by protests, indicating Nike is more beholden to public opinion than morality.

Nike is not alone in their hypocrisy: Google latched onto the #MeToo movement with an ad where a father reminded his son to respect his prom date. Simultaneously, the company was being accused of “extreme gender pay discrimination” by the US Department of Labor. A Proctor and Gamble ad encourages the viewer to recognize and discuss racial bias, while the company itself benefits from modern slave labor. Dove encourages positive female body image while being linked to child labour in Indonesia. Back in 1995, Nike ran ads encouraging female empowerment and participation in sports, while subcontracting to sweatshops where sexual abuse was rampant.

The only explanation for such large scale cognitive dissonance is money. To these companies, social justice is just another trend to commodify, especially when marketing to younger, more progressive demographics. Multiple studies indicate millennials are more likely to buy products from brands that promote themselves as socially conscious. For Nike, attaching itself to Kaepernick has paid off. Despite what viral videos of burnt Nike apparel may lead you to believe, sales are up more than 30 percent since announcing Kaepernick as a company spokesman.

Still, to those who can dismiss Nike’s dubious motivations, the amplification of Kaepernick’s message may be a victory. There’s no denying the immense symbolism of the moment. A company of Nike’s stature endorsing a controversial person of color carries weight, even if the ad speaks in cliches and platitudes instead of Kaepernick’s own cutting language. It’s also fair to note that while other companies do commodify movements, Nike has taken a larger risk than most by backing one of the most divisive figures in the country right now.

On the other hand, allying with corporations like Nike who benefit from unchecked, unregulated free markets leads to a toothless message. Look at any advertisement supporting a social movement, and you’ll notice they conspicuously omit critiques of capitalism. At the end of the day, corporations are fundamentally self interested, and won’t endorse criticism of the system which allows them to thrive. However, these critiques are essential if we want to foundationally solve our problems. Capitalism is the broader framework within which most systemic injustices reside, and it must be discussed, as revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Martin Luther King Jr. have in the past.

Take mass incarceration, one of the issues Kaepernick is protesting. Rising prison and immigrant detention populations are driven by the multi billion dollar private prison industry. Another issue on Kaepernick’s agenda, what he has called “the lawful lynching of black and brown people,” is exacerbated by an increasingly militarized police, whose war toys are distributed by private defense contractors.

Kaepernick himself has sacrificed much, and isn’t to blame. The ad simply gives us another reminder that merging the goals of corporations and social justice is exploitative, and restricts movements. Any attempt to break a system of oppression is limited when the perpetrators of injustice are allowed to control the narrative.  


Harry Zehner is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.