Howard Bryant on Colin Kaepernick and the Moral Bankruptcy of the NFL

The Cautionary Tale of Nike, ESPN, and the Lure of Corporate Activism

During the first week of August 2018 the video game giant EA Sports admitted it had erased Colin Kaepernick’s name from the lyrics of a song included in the soundtrack of its smash-hit Madden football franchise. After the public fury—on social media, the platforms where the young people who religiously purchase video games traffic, and in the news cycle where the older suits gauge reaction—EA admitted its wrongdoing, claimed it had made a mistake, apologized to both Kaepernick and the artist, YG, and restored Kaepernick’s name to the song. They were certainly sorry—sorry anyone noticed.

During my first years at ESPN, the enormous conflicts of interest between the company’s traditional journalism wing and its business of broadcasting sports was an open secret that employees believed they could rationalize away. A refrain was repeated to me often by veteran writers and editors, the gist of which was, “I’ve worked here for years and no one has ever told me what I could or couldn’t write.” Superficially there was no reason to believe this wasn’t true, yet it was nevertheless preposterous because the culture changes the individual long before the individuals change the culture, and inside the building the editors and reporters—especially the editors—already knew what types of stories and what types of tones would be acceptable to management long before having to ask.

They knew which ones would produce angry phone calls from Roger Goodell, Bud Selig, or David Stern, the commissioners at the time of, respectively, the NFL, Major League Baseball, and the NBA—even when they chose to do the story anyway. Corporations rely on employees self-censoring to ensure that trouble for its business relationships is kept to a minimum. Pretty much everyone working at any corporation knows where they stand upon entering the building.

The culture is no different, I suspect, at a video game powerhouse like EA Sports, where, even if the scrubbing of Kaepernick’s name was not directly ordered from the highest levels of the company, the rank and file understood the implications of his name within the NFL. It is entirely plausible that either through personal offense or being a good soldier, an individual or group of individuals took it upon themselves to remove Kaepernick’s name from the game, keeping EA in virtual lockstep with Kaepernick’s real-world banishment. I think they all knew exactly what they were doing.

The erasure of one player paralleled the elevation of another, and while EA was getting its story straight, Ray Lewis, for years the fearsome middle linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During Kaepernick’s protest, Lewis proved to be of great service to the NFL in general and the Ravens in particular by trashing him. Lewis told Kaepernick to “keep his mouth shut,” allowing himself to be used as a prominent ex-player with a broadcast platform (Lewis worked at the time for ESPN) and as a black man, as protest of police brutality, at least among athletes, is considered a black issue. Whenever struggling with the specter of Kaepernick, the NFL’s overwhelmingly white ownership and its commissioner could point to Ray Lewis, who let them employ the oldest trick in the book: find a black guy to criticize another black guy.

In the eyes of the NFL and much of its fan base, Lewis was the antithesis of Kaepernick, and to them, this undoubtedly was a compliment. Football fans easily recall the Lewis show: the pregame dance, the inspirational motivational speeches, and the even-more-ferocious hits. He was part of a fearsome lineage of the prototypical NFL linebacker-as-leader, heir to the legends from Nitschke to Huff, Butkus to Singletary. His Hall of Fame induction speech was craven.

The pontificators pontificate about Nike, a business partner with the NFL, outfitter of the entire league, unveiling a Kaepernick ad a week before the start of the season.

I have no doubt that Lewis embodied the NFL’s self-portrait. He reminds me of the person at whose jokes people laugh because they fear him. I bet there isn’t a moment, even when fans laugh and nod their heads approvingly during his enshrinement, that he cannot escape his own infamous appositive—even among those in the audience who would say he’s part of the NFL family. In public, to them he is Ray Lewis, Legendary NFL Hall of Famer. In private, closer to the halls of respectability, he is Ray Lewis Who Was Directly Involved in an Unsolved Double Murder. He is Ray Lewis Who Was Charged with Two Counts of Murder before pleading guilty to obstruction of justice.

The moral bankruptcy of the NFL was magnified when Lewis was allowed to sermonize in his induction speech for 34 minutes without acknowledging what he knows took place that day in 2000. The NFL did not encourage humility or demand contrition from Lewis but actively enabled precisely the opposite: a callow and fraudulent spectacle. Lewis used the years following his involvement in the murders of Richard Lollar and Jacinth Baker in a brawl outside an Atlanta nightclub to become even louder and more self-absorbed, to become even more convinced that he has no blood on his hands simply by repeating it over and over again.

The NFL profits from this ridiculousness. Ray Lewis tells them what they want to hear because his rags-to-riches success bullshit leaves their controlling system in place, creates less resistance to its money machine of broken brains, bones, and bodies and creates fewer dissidents because of the number of friends and family who rely on muscular shoulders of the black stars who made it. By punishing the Kaepernick brain, it enabled the Lewis body, whose self-important preening is completely nonthreatening to the white owners who pay him.

Nor is he a challenge to the white coaches who tell him what to do. The NFL hierarchy is comfortable profiting from the dead-or-in-jail narrative of black boys believing they have no options beyond tackling or dunking or singing that is devouring black youth. The dichotomy of Lewis being celebrated for being the ultimate football warrior while being publicly illegitimate provided the perfect mirror for the thoughtful, searching Kaepernick, whose banishment reflected the anti-blackness embedded within sports, where the most successful black professionals work. Forget the victims. The more Lewises, the better.

It should come as no surprise that Kaepernick has missed at least two full seasons and counting for making a gesture while Ray Lewis, who was directly involved in an unsolved double murder, was fined $250,000 by the NFL and never missed a game.

*

September 3rd, 2018: Nike unveils an ad featuring an extreme closeup of Colin Kaepernick, in a black-and-white photograph, staring uncompromisingly ahead, the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” superimposed across his serious and unsmiling face. Social media ignites. The pontificators pontificate about Nike, a business partner with the NFL, outfitter of the entire league, unveiling a Kaepernick ad a week before the start of the season.

Within hours the details begin to trickle out of Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters: the sneaker giant has signed Kaepernick to a new endorsement deal to be a brand ambassador of sorts. The next day Nike unveils a one-minute ad voiced over by Kaepernick, news in and of itself since he has not given an interview since January 2017. It is a spell of inspiring clips of athletes, from greats to unknowns, all connected by their drive to be their very best selves and by Kaepernick, now the martyred conscience of a generation.

The ad was viewed as a marketing masterstroke, cultivating the fertile, ignored constituency of Kaepernick supporters who for two years had been treated as invisible under the asphyxiating humidity of flag-waving “real fans.” Something else occurs: by standing up to the NFL and rehabilitating Kaepernick, Nike had implausibly become an ally in a resistance.

The very thought of Nike being positioned as heroic spiraled my mood. This reaction to a corporation recognizing a profit opportunity felt inauthentic. It felt desperate. Nike had never publicly denounced the NFL for the immorality (and, by settling his collusion lawsuit for a reported sum of more than $60 million, unethical if not illegal) of blackballing Kaepernick in the first place. The company did revive Kaepernick from exile but did not do it out of solidarity with and support for one of its longtime clients.

Nike never used its enormous marketing muscle power to sanction or even admonish the NFL or to send an actual financial message that it would not allow freedoms, or people, to be trampled. For two full seasons, the company said nothing. When the public vilified Kaepernick, his employers, media, and even progressive members of the Supreme Court (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the revered “Notorious RBG,” once called his protest “dumb and disrespectful”) all said nothing in support. They said nothing when Donald Trump trashed Kaepernick, and it should also be noted that the company still offers discount coupons to police officers who shop online.

When Kaepernick and the NFL settled his collusion case for a reported tens of millions, some prominent people stunningly asked if accepting the NFL’s money made him a “sellout.”

The ad itself was safe, and through its safeness, Kaepernick was no longer dangerous, or at least no longer as dangerous. There was no mention of his protest in the ad, nor of police, nor of any of the reasons why he was the voice of the ad. Nothing about Kaepernick’s presence spoke to justice, for Philando Castile or Daniel Shaver, Sandra Bland or Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, or himself. The soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who took a knee during the national anthem in support of Kaepernick and against injustice, was shown in the ad—standing in support of the flag.

For a frame, Kaepernick even spoke to the camera, standing in front of a building whose façade was covered by a hologram of the American flag. Whether through a corporate-friendly Supreme Court or profiting from the cultural collision of patriotism and protest, it was clear the American corporation was controlling the marionette. And the marionette is us.

There was something flimsy and grasping about it all, this desire to see corporations as redeeming, transformative, leading. It felt like surrender. One megacorporation (the NFL) used its ubiquity to actively punish activism and dismiss black people and their claim to full citizenship, while another (Nike) created images to inspire activism while refusing to actually support and fight for justice. Neither protest nor patriotism, it must be noted, should ever be for sale. Yet both the NFL and Nike were united in profit, the NFL cultivating the Real Americans who hated Kaepernick and Nike making his supporters, in need of hope, believe they had a corporate ally.

Corporate activism is every bit the oxymoron that corporate courage is, and at its core, the selling of Kaepernick as an inspirational figure without the accompanying action of denouncing the NFL and the reckless conduct of police or of taking a tangible business risk is to profit off dead black people. At the hands of the state. To look cool. To sell sneakers. To be on the right side of history but only at the slightest of first glances.

Months later, in February 2019, when Kaepernick and the NFL settled his collusion case for a reported tens of millions, some prominent people stunningly asked if accepting the NFL’s money made him a “sellout.” Kaepernick did not sue the NFL for the right to protest but for the right to work. Whatever the NFL paid him was money he was owed because the league denied him the opportunity to work. Though it was not uncommon to hear that he should have given his settlement to charity, whatever monies he received from his settlement belonged appropriately to him.

Kaepernick then launched a few tweets with the hashtag #TrueTo7, which through one lens could have been perceived to be a thank-you to the people who supported him during his exile and litigation but through another resembled celebrity branding. Kaepernick’s power lay not in a focus on him but in his willingness to risk his career for a message where he personally was unaffected. Yet the first two years of his banishment have consisted of a social media presence that almost exclusively sells Kaepernick Nike jerseys, with him tagging and retweeting photos of people—beautiful people and plain folk alike—repping his gear or saying nice things about him.

He remained equally present, committed to his Know Your Rights camps but curiously noncommittal as a public figure. What was missing was an emphasis on the continuing problem of dead black bodies at the hands of the state. The #TrueTo7 hashtag implied that justice for him was now the center of the story and not police officers being indemnified from their own police reports. In a little over a year Kaepernick had become an even more established part of the celebrity class, selling jerseys and hair-care products, with an agreement for a television show about his life with the director Ava DuVernay and, as of March 2019, a stunning streak of not having given a public interview in more than two years.

Colin Kaepernick had done enough, and yet I could not help feeling conflicted for the people who had taken to the streets inspired by him, and wanting him to join them. As one New York grassroots activist said to me, “I keep hearing the term ‘I’m with Kap,’ but is he with us?”

*

If applauding Nike felt like surrender, was there something significant to be found in surrender? Kaepernick’s physical exile from the NFL symbolized defeat, not just for his professional livelihood but for dissidence, as it was clear that the league was making an example of him. His downfall seemed a victory for corporations crushing individuals everywhere, of whiteness telling blackness to get over it, of ignoring anyone horrified that in less than a year’s time, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby killed Terence Crutcher in the middle of the street, was acquitted of manslaughter, and then was rehired in law enforcement.

Metaphorically, Kaepernick was Metacomet at Plymouth, his head on a stake as a warning for any natives with big ideas. Hearing Kaepernick anew, the voice resurrected, was there value in him, even propped up by Nike’s billions, simply staying in the public’s face?

Despite Nike’s corporate duplicity, the fight could not be decoupled from Kaepernick. There was no way out.

Initially, I did not believe any of this to be true. I did not feel much like celebrating the maintaining of the celebrity class, especially when the Nike ads were clearly made with Kaepernick’s approval and did not include protest, and did not withstand the scrutiny of a simple question: What does any of this have to do with justice?

Soon, stories appeared nationwide of people cutting up their Nike socks and burning their Nike sneakers, of refusing to carry Nike gear. In a spectacular fail, one Colorado storeowner went out of business. The Mississippi public safety commissioner ordered state police to no longer purchase Nike gear. A Louisiana police department dressed its suspects in Nike gear for their mug shots. The mayor of a New Orleans suburb ordered, and a Rhode Island town voted to prohibit its departments from purchasing Nike products. During the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation hearings, which occurred the same week Nike unveiled Kaepernick, Trump gave a speech suggesting all protesting be illegal.

As news reports of schools threatening to boycott Nike and municipalities refusing to the purchase the company’s apparel increased, my mind began to shift. It was clear that a man who had broken no laws and had only spoken his mind was being actively destroyed by the public. And let’s be clear: by public, I mean to say the overwhelmingly white public, and the government.

How else does one assess local politicians and law enforcement officers suddenly sufficiently emboldened to undertake an intimidation campaign against one of the world’s most powerful corporations? Though he essentially lives on the fringes of the American mainstream, not speaking publicly, not playing in the NFL, and not organizing protest, so many whites were exposing themselves by their disproportional response to the specter of Kaepernick.

Despite Nike’s corporate duplicity, the fight could not be decoupled from Kaepernick. There was no way out. Parsing percentages of the opposition’s size is a game at which Americans are expert, especially when those in power are indicted. (See: “not all cops,” “not all men,” and “not all white people.”) It is an exercise in tedium but some large portion of this America had decided that Colin Kaepernick had no right to any semblance of a life, a career, or a public presence in any form. They had resolved to destroy him personally, as well as any entity associated with him, even a corporation as enormous and ubiquitous as Nike.

In the summer of 2019, when Nike pulled a limited-edition Independence Day shoe because Kaepernick reportedly objected to its featuring the Betsy Ross flag, designed at a time when all 13 colonies were slaveholding, Arizona governor Doug Ducey announced he would eliminate the financial incentives Nike was to receive for building a new plant in the Phoenix suburbs, risking local jobs and economic growth for the city of Goodyear. (Ducey quickly backed down.)

If Kaepernick and Nike were under attack for criticizing police, who deserve every bit of it, then white America had exposed itself yet again in its willingness to sacrifice black life, in its complete and criminal lack of interest in justice. Neither of which, we all know at this late date, is the issue even closely approximating the real one: white people’s desire for black people to be the quiet, obedient renters of the American dream.

This unknowable percentage of Americans who believed these things and burned their own belongings could not be dismissed as an irrational or racist fringe because chief among their legions was the power: the president of the United States, police chiefs, local mayors, and state governors. This was what America was, and my mind had to change.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Full Dissidence: Notes From an Uneven Playing Field by Howard Bryant. Copyright 2020. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Howard Bryant
Howard Bryant
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine and has served as the sports correspondent for NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday since 2006. He is the author of The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron; Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball; Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston; and the three-book Legends sports series for middle-grade readers. His most recent book is The Heritage: Black Athletes, a Divided America, and the Politics of Patriotism. A two-time Casey Award winner (2003, 2011) for best baseball book of the year, Bryant was also a 2003 finalist for the Society for American Baseball Research Seymour Medal. In 2016, he was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and received the 2016 Salute to Excellence Award from the National Association of Black Journalists. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.





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