If you’re like me, sometime this past Thursday you thought to yourself, ‘oh shit, the Kaepernick ad drops tonight.’ This, as opposed to ‘oh shit, the football season starts tonight.’ (The ad was to debut during the inaugural game of this year’s National Football League schedule.)
You can insert your own progressive version of Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might be a redneck if …” joke here.
Colin Kaepernick, of course, is the football player effectively banned from the NFL for protesting against police brutality and systemic racism in the United States. This week, he became the face of Nike’s 30th-anniversary advertising campaign.
Ignore for a moment the tragic hilarity of a company built on sweatshop labor like Nike now venturing in the field of social justice. Instead, focus on Kaepernick.
When I was a teenager I had a poster of Muhammad Ali on my wall. It was a picture snapped just after his knockout of Sonny Liston in their second fight – the so called ‘phantom punch.’ Ali was looking down at an out-of-shot Liston, his arm cocked in front of him, his face grimacing, seemingly saying ‘get up.’
It was not a bad thing to see when you woke up as a teenager; sometimes getting out of bed could be difficult in those days.
I thought a lot about Ali at the time. Not necessarily his exploits in the ring, though certainly those too, but more so his exploits outside of the ring, his radical activism.
Really, I was wondering about myself.
Decades after the fact, Muhammad Ali is and was almost universally revered as a hero. But at the time he was actually carrying out what would become his acts of heroism, public opinion was not nearly so uniform or agreeable. He was a controversial and divisive figure in a racially charged country and climate.
“My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor, hungry people in the mud, for big, powerful America, and shoot them. For what? They never called me nigger. They never lynched me. They never put no dogs on me. They never robbed me of my nationality, or raped and killed my mother and father. … How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.”
It was easy to revere Ali, to put a poster on the wall, years removed from the conflict, with historical hindsight offering affirmation. But I always wondered how I would have perceived Ali had I been alive at the time. Would I have been able to see through the spin, the militarism, the partisan politics of mainstream culture? Would I have supported Ali at the time for what he would later become known for?
Broadly, this is the type of question which is unavoidable for any self-professed progressive. Namely, are we Hillary Clinton, who helped construct the seminal anti-gay legislation of the age in the mid-1990s – the Defense of Marriage Act and ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military – before finally coming around to support gay rights 20 years later, only after public opinion had already shifted over? Or are we Bernie Sanders, who in the 90s stood on the floor of Congress loudly defending the LGBT community?
But I digress. My point about Ali was really my point about Colin Kaepernick.
I don’t think you have to be a progressive, or even a liberal, to appreciate and respect what Kaepernick is doing. This may seem like a ridiculous proposition considering that for some Kaepernick currently stands as one of the top villains in the game. (in the game, being a ‘banned from football’ pun). Clearly, his beliefs and his actions are controversial for many in the country; Kaepernick has at least as many enemies, including the President of the United States, as he does friends.
But this is no different than Muhammad Ali in the 1960s. What led to the deification of Ali was not necessarily his specific beliefs or actions, but something which can be much more universally appreciated.
When Ali was banned from boxing for his views on the Vietnam War, he was at the time the reigning, defending, undefeated and undisputed heavyweight boxing champion of the world – the absolute pinnacle of his profession, making millions of dollars to ply his trade, the culmination of a life’s work he had started as a small child.
Yet, the allure of further fame and fortune was not as great for Ali as the allure of his beliefs.
Similarly, Colin Kaepernick overcame near infinitely long odds to become a professional football player only to, at the crescendo of his life’s work, give it all back for his beliefs.
Let me ask you this: if you are a person who thinks professional athletes should “shut up and play,” who derisively responds to chants of ‘black lives matter’ with ‘blue lives matter,’ would you have the guts to subject yourself to a public excommunication from your profession, from your standard of living, from your life’s work to stand up for these beliefs? What about if those ‘blue lives’ had been marginalized and discriminated against for hundreds of years? Would that do it?
The idea that someone would relinquish that which we are taught in our culture to pursue most ravenously – wealth and power, fame and fortune – in order to stand up for their beliefs is something which can be appreciated across the partisan political spectrum.
Now would be the time we can stop ignoring Nike standing with one foot in the sweatshop and the other in social activism. If we are looking for hypocrisy here, as usual, look up.
Personally, I hope Kaepernick is cashing in, since he has already proven his financial commitment to his beliefs. He has already proven himself to have more bravery and a deeper conviction than most of us.
By the way, that poster of Ali I had on my wall as a teenager, it had a slogan printed on the bottom. It said, ‘Impossible Is Nothing.’ That is to say, it was not so much a poster as it was a piece of promotional material for Adidas (this being their slogan at the time). I think I got it free when I bought a pair of shoes.