On one hand, I can’t believe I care now a little about football. When I was at Oregon State the football team was notoriously the worst program in the country (from a website: “the Beavers still hold the NCAA Div. IA record for the most consecutive losing seasons at 28 straight years, 1970-98) yet the players on the team swaggered around the athletic facilities and campus as if they were kings (much to the chagrin of the skinny cross-country runners like me who had to share the facilities with those assholes). And I have never actually watched an entire football game. But on the other hand, lately it seems that football has transcended the world of sports beyond rah rah look at ‘em go, my-town-is-better-than-your-town, typical entertainment into actual social consciousness via the kneeling-during –the-anthem thing , and thus to me it’s now become pretty intriguing. And now Nike has ratcheted up the rhetoric with its new commercial/campaign featuring the much-maligned Colin Kaepernick in a re-introduction of its “Just Do It” campaign that was launched 30 years ago. Here’s a link to the ad, (narrated by Kaepernick)
I was a fresh, enthusiastic new employee at Nike in 1988 when they had an all-company meeting in a biggish movie theater in Beaverton (it’s a testament to how much they’ve grown: Nike now employs over 12,000 people in Oregon). The VP of marketing unveiled the new campaign to we employees first, and I have a vivid memory of the theater being split into three thirds with each third holling “JUST. DO. IT!” in sequence, and literally people stormed out the doors as fired up as…well, a football team entering a stadium. Of course, the campaign was legendary, spawned many wannabe slogans by its rivals that never really resonated; I had to look a couple of them up, which is a testament to their staying power: Adidas: “Impossible is Nothing” (and neither are lame slogans), Reebok: “I am what I am” (and I’m not what I’m not?), Under Armour: “I will/Protect This House” (huh?). Nike has utilized “Just Do It” off and on for a long time, and clearly decided to use the coincidental opportunity of the slogan’s anniversary and this national “conversation” (argument) for a provocative relaunch, and of course it immediately stoked the fires on both sides of the argument, as it no doubt fully expected.
Since the ad came out, I’ve read a handful of opinions about it, and they have compelled me to write my own, and I’ll take them one at a time.
First, the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial page editor and columnist George Pyle, whose opinion and writing I admire, had this piece where he unfortunately falls on the tired trope that Nike utilizes/encourages deplorable labor practices of its contracted factories while simultaneously disparaging them for charging “too much” for its products, before actually going on to compliment them for their support of what he sees as a legitimate expression of someone’s right to protest social injustice. At the risk of going too much into a tangent, Nike – and all big companies – deserve to be criticized for many things, but after the “sweatshop” allegations came up in the ‘90’s Nike took those complaints and reputation seriously and worked hard to pressure their vendors to improve conditions for their vendors. And even as Nike was and has been taking the heat, their competitors – including Under Armor, which Mr. Pyle references as a potential alternative since he incorrectly assumes they have different vendors and higher standards – shyly ducked away from that controversy, because their products were literally being made in the same factories, by the same people as Nike’s. I have not been in any of the big boyz’ factories, but I have been in plenty of Asian shoe factories, and I have seen that the factories have taken the pressure to heart and the conditions are clean, safe, and I can vouch for the fact that the only person sweating in the factories I’ve visited was….me, being unaccustomed to the warm temps and high humidity of SE Asia. And in fact, the shoe factory that I did see that had absolutely deplorable conditions (wayyy too hot, dirty, cramped, multiple open barrels of the toxic solvent MEK,) was in….Los Angeles! And if Mr. Pyle thinks that shoes are too expensive now, perhaps when Trumpy Boy gets his way and the shoe industry moves back over here (which effectively can’t happen) his nice light jogging shoes will be retailing for probably well over $400.
Last fall, being somewhat ignorant of football Ashley and I engaged in a conversation with some family members about the kneeling deal. At the time it wasn’t as big of a deal as it is now and we didn’t quite understand the passion that some folks had on the topic, and it unfortunately turned into the ugly family blowup. One argument was that these guys were not providing respect to the flag and the freedoms for which our respective fathers’ sacrificed their safety and years of their lives defending. From my perspective, however, I am pretty confident that my own dad – who stared down death many times on a ship in the Pacific for 4 years during WWII – would say “I did that in order to assure that people like Kaepernick have the freedom to express their opinions.” As an employee, of course, there can be other limitations applied by the employers, but assuming that dynamic is addressed, the ability to kneel is a legitimate expression of the first amendment.
And even the concept of kneeling is important: everyone has seen a King Arthur movie where the knights kneel before the king in a show of utmost respect, and even the Bible applies the concept of kneeling to not only respect but mutual respect: “When you kneel before God He stands up for you.” (Ephesians 1:3).
But back to the ad, and Kaepernick’s part in it.
The Salt Lake Trib’s sports columnist Gordon Monson put up his opinion yesterday, and he feels that Nike deteriorates the overall message for simple commercial reasons. There is no doubt that Nike did a full financial analysis of the potential implications of the ad, but Monson neglects to recognize that Nike’s global impact has created the ability to transcend simple sales, and as a fierce defender of athletes and athletics, they have the right and perhaps feel the obligation to throw down something like this ad, perhaps even as a global manifestation of their management’s and employee’s own feelings. I kinda used to know Nike’s president Mark Parker, president of innovation Tom Clarke, and other leaders there and know enough about founders Phil Knight and Bill Bowerman to know that all of these folks are quite passionate and have the guts to use their bully pulpit as a hugely influential company to throw down, regardless of the financial implications (which, to be sure, will undoubtedly be positive). And this passion speaks to an equally-disappointing column by the Washington Post’s Megan McArdle, who thinks that “Nike…should leave the politics to politicians and voters”. Well, I think it’s pretty clear to anyone that not only did this specific action actually start - and remains in - the social sphere and has been co-opted by politicians, and I think it’s also pretty clear that “leaving the politics to politicians” has not really worked out that well lately, since if nothing else it’s created deep divisiveness, among other things.
Last week I got turned onto Jelani Cobb, a Smart Guy writer for the New Yorker who was in SLC for a talk about race in the US, and he addressed the controversy by pointing out that Kaepernick has been vilified because he should be grateful for the opportunity to play football, even though what he’s chosen to do requires fulfilling the American Dream of enduring years of practice and executing the highest levels of performance (do we expect people like Musk or Welch or Zuckerberg to be “grateful” for the opportunity to pursue their careers?). And Cobb also points out one of the arguments is that well, Kaepernick is rich, so why should he complain? But also points out that being rich doesn’t necessarily preclude anyone from complaining, with exhibit A being Donald Trump being super rich and being the Complainer in Chief.
(here's the link to the hour+ conversation, which is really good; the reference to Kaepernick is at minute 42:00, and goes on to point out that Louis Armstrong did something quite similar long ago). And Cobb also came out this week with his view on the Nike ad that is far more articulate than I could ever hope to emulate.
Even though I now know enough about football that this is a big deal and find myself admiring a football player for the first time ever, but it's unlikely that I’ll be watching any games this fall (gotta keep my streak going!). But conversation is interesting and provocative, the ad is indeed pretty inspiring and I admire Nike for having the guts – that Under Armor only wishes they could have – to Just Do It yet again. And maybe I'll even think about buying a pair of Nikes!