Athlete Activist

Has Nike made it acceptable for athletes to be activists?  It appears so given, the deal that Nike made with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  Colin Kaepernick became an athlete activist when he courageously used his platform to protest police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem prior to games.  As a result, many believe Kaepernick was “blackballed” from the NFL for his actions. Since then he has become a polarizing political figure.  Kaepernick subsequently sued the NFL for colluding to keep him out of the league.

In spite of this, Nike, who is the NFL’s official apparel provider,  took a bold stand by making Kaepernick the face of their 30th Anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.  Nike’s announcement shocked the world and was met with much criticism.  It was the first time Kaepernick received mainstream corporate support for sacrificing his career to stand up for what he believed in.

The deal was unusual as historically athlete activists do not receive endorsements or any mainstream support. They are usually kicked out of their league and in many cases forgotten about.  This trend has left many athletes reluctant to speak on social justice issues.  Nike’s endorsement has the power to completely revolutionize the way athlete activist are viewed and the way they view the consequences of speaking out.

Athlete Activist Whose Careers Suffered for Activism

Kaepernick was not the first athlete activist to lose his career for taking a stand on social justice issues. Muhammad Ali was stripped of his boxing license for refusing the draft during the Vietnam War.  As a result, Ali missed out on valuable years of his prime.  In 1992 in the midst of the Rodney King case, NBA star Craig Hodges was ousted from the NBA for speaking out against racism in the NBA and America.  Similar to Kaepernick, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was ousted from the NBA for refusing to stand for the national anthem because it conflicted with his Muslim faith.  Former NFL defensive end Eric Reid has been ousted from the league arguably for kneeling alongside Kaepernick.

Due to the aforementioned and other similar stories, athlete activism was unfairly characterized as career suicide. Athlete Activism was unfairly considered bad for business, not only for the league but also for the athlete’s brand. As a result, athletes have been reluctant to speak out.  In light of this view, Kaepernick being ousted from the NFL came as no surprise.    Everyone thought Kaepernick had ruined his NFL career.  No one expected him ever to be able to land any kind of sports-related endorsement ever again.   This is why Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick is so revolutionary. A major athletic apparel company has never endorsed a controversial athlete activist.  The endorsement has the power to completely change the view of athlete activism.

Is This a New Day for Athlete Activist?

Should other athletes be inspired by Nike’s endorsement and be unafraid to speak out?  Other athletes should be inspired by the endorsement.  Nike endorsed Kaepernick because they saw the value in his message. They saw the power in his resolve to stand for his beliefs at all cost.  This resonated with Nike and the message behind their slogan “Just Do It.”  “Just Do It” inspires people to do what they need to do to succeed at all cost.   That is just what Kaepernick did.  Nike would likely support other athletes who use their platforms to stand for their beliefs, no matter the consequences.

Nike also realized the economic incentive in endorsing Kaepernick.  They saw the overwhelming amount of people who supported Kaepernick and realized that he could be good for business.  Nike realized that the fan base the NFL ostracized was the fan base that it should cater to.  Other brands may see Nike’s success with Kaepernick and begin to endorse athlete activist as well.  It is a new day for athlete activist.  Athletes should be inspired by Nike’s endorsement of Kaepernick and stand up for their own beliefs.

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