Nike's Kaepernick stance alienates all the right people
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Nike's Kaepernick stance alienates all the right people

Stand by sports fans, this is getting seriously interesting.

To recap, back in August 2016, the black quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick, started sitting during the American national anthem to protest against racial injustice in the United States, most particularly the number of young black men shot by white policemen.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” he said. “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.”

Game-changer: San Francisco 49ers' Eli Harold (from left), Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before facing the Dallas Cowboys in October 2016.

Game-changer: San Francisco 49ers' Eli Harold (from left), Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before facing the Dallas Cowboys in October 2016.Credit:AP

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Huge controversy followed with Kaepernick lionised and vilified in fairly equal measure – and with equal passion – for his stance. Sitting down quickly became "taking a knee", and though the quarterback was soon let go for his trouble and has not played professionally since, the movement he started went on despite all the obstacles put in its way.

Lionised and vilified: The quarterback has paid a high price for his brave stance.

Lionised and vilified: The quarterback has paid a high price for his brave stance. Credit:AP

With President Donald Trump putting his weight behind banning the practice, last month the NFL did exactly that, insisting that those who would not stand must stay in the locker room. As your humble columnist has noted, I don’t get it. I love the American National Anthem, particularly the climactic line: “O'er the land of the freeeee ... and the home of the braaaaave.”

Last month, in this column I noted how I can see who the brave are – those who have taken a knee, despite the example before them of what happened to Kaepernick. But where are the free? Can the Americans really celebrate “freedom” in their national anthem, but punish the bejeesus out of those who choose to exercise their own freedom by making such a simple gesture as taking a knee over an entirely legitimate issue?

No-one provided an answer, because there is none. A nation which prides itself on the right to freedom of speech, which means freedom of expression, can’t claim to actually live by those values when it so severely punishes one of their own when he exercises that right by criticising the nation itself.

And so to the latest development. Despite all the controversy, despite the mighty NFL and a whole chunk of America turning their back on Kaepernick, the sportswear manufacturer Nike announced Kaepernick as the key face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, with the former quarterback’s face appearing over the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The reaction has been similar to back in 2016: about half of America loves it, the other half hates it.

The stock market appears to be in the latter half, with shares dropping three per cent on the news, even as #NikeBoycott started trending on Twitter, as President Trump called it “a terrible message,” Fox News blew a gasket in its outrage and citizens across America started publicly burning their Nikes! In sum? Excellent news for Nike!

They are the talking point, they are positioning themselves as edgy and relevant, and they are seen to be sticking it to the man.

Personally, I have had issues with Nike in the past, including their use of sweatshop labour in Asia to make their shoes. But this move is impressive – and I suspect clever. Yup, it has seriously pissed off huge swathes of the population, most particularly the old red-necks who support Trump. But are they the ones who buy Nike in force?

Obviously not. The Nike demographic boasts the younger and more ethnically diverse sections of the population who have been on Kaepernick's side from the start and my pound to your peanut says they will be more inclined to buy Nike. And, for what it’s worth, so will I.

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Martin Luther King Jr famously once said: “Let us realise the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Kaepernick is on the right side of that arc, and in the long-term history will judge him and those who support him very well indeed. Yes, Nike is taking some flak right now, just as Qantas did when they supported same-sex marriage. But on this one, Nike, just like Qantas, is on the right side of history and will be marked up accordingly.

So let’s check in a month from now. I reckon the month’s graph of Nike’s share price will resemble their famous swoosh!

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

Peter FitzSimons is a Herald journalist, columnist and author, based in Sydney. He is also a former Wallabies player.