Colin Kaepernick: Hero or Villain?
Unpacking the reactions to Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign
Posted Sep 14, 2018
Tiffany Yip is teaching a graduate seminar on Multicultural Psychology this semester and has invited some of her students to co-author blogs. This blog was written with Evan Auguste, a third-year doctoral student in Fordham University's Clinical Psychology program.
This past week, Nike celebrated the 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign with a commercial showcasing an athletic aspiration that has been central to the company’s brand for decades. The viral spot features Nike-sponsored athletes like Eliud Kipchoge, Serena Williams, and LeBron James exhibiting the type of on and off the field excellence that has made them cultural icons for so many around the world. While Nike has a roster of such figures who could have been appointed spokesperson, the athletic wear company surmised that no one completely captured this moment in sports, culture, and politics like activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. They were clearly on to something. Despite the advertisement featuring a diversity of backgrounds, it would be difficult to find someone without an opinion specifically on Kaepernick's presence—and his challenge to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
While there are more than a few justified critiques of the Nike organization, the visibility they have given to Kaepernick, who was blacklisted from the NFL following his efforts to protest racially biased policing and subsequent brutality, should not be understated. More than preventing NFL owners and media personalities from misconstruing and silencing Kaepernick’s expressed purpose for protesting, Nike put forth an effort to display the contributions of these black and brown people in a positive light.
A recent report found that racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S. continue to support media that has representative diversity in droves. Research has also shown that positive media depictions of Black and Latinx Americans are related to higher self-esteem and more positive attitudes about their own racial and ethnic identities. For Nike, there was a clear reward in connecting with a man that represents so much to so many. In fact, online sales have risen significantly since the ad aired.
However, in linking to one of the most polarizing Black activists of the day, Nike also waded into the waters of a cultural anxiety endemic to America. Although there is research to suggest that positive depictions of racial and ethnic minorities in media can have positive effects on how white audiences view these groups, the connection is complicated. It has been shown that audiences can also group positive depictions together as “exceptions to the rule” and leave cultural stereotypes untouched. That is to say, athletes like LeBron and Serena are seen as anomalous, rather than characteristic of Black Americans. Even this, however, does not fully explain the palpable negativity following Kaepernick’s commercial that left one Nike store inundated with incensed callers, many of whom left messages fueled by racial bigotry. It does not explain why the mayor of Kenner, Louisiana banned the sale of Nike products in the city’s recreation programs. And it does not explain why social media sites like Twitter and Instagram were flushed with people, predominantly white, setting their Nike products ablaze.
To understand this backlash, it is necessary to understand how Kaepernick has been perceived across racial and ethnic lines. While social psychologists understand that positive interracial contact can be beneficial in creating better race relations, interactions that are perceived as symbolic or as cultural threats can do the exact opposite. These types of contacts are assumed to signal a loss of status and can trigger racial insecurities. So, when Colin Kaepernick’s message returns to the homes of millions of Americans—with full support from one of the most ubiquitous sports brands in the world—there are those who answer with defensiveness, particularly those of the majority culture.
In burning the Nike logo, some people are attempting to punish the company for an attack on their very identity. But if history can offer any insight, symbolic burnings have rarely been remembered on the winning side.
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