At the outset, I must confess that despite being fully aware of Nike’s horrible reputation for exploiting poverty-stricken workers of color worldwide, I nonetheless sang (and sing) its praises ever since the company announced a few days ago that it had re-signed former 49ers star quarterback Colin Kaepernick to an increased multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract following his original 2011 signing and that, as part of the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign, it would have him narrate and be featured in its commercial during the first game of and throughout the entire 2018-19 NFL season as well as during the U.S. Open, Major League Baseball games and college football games.
Nike also will include his image on billboards and in online ads and additionally will create a Kaepernick clothing line and contribute to his Know Your Rights charity.
Despite all that, not only is my singing Nike’s praises hypocritical, it’s also heartless. I’ll explain later.
In the meantime, allow me to discuss two remarkably similar and impressively strong Black men. By courageously kneeling during the national anthem to protest unabated police murders of innocent and unarmed Blacks, by heroically speaking out against systemic racism throughout America, and by unarguably being a superstar athlete, Kaepernick has become this generation’s Muhammad Ali. In fact, the photos above of the dashiki-wearing Kaepernick with Black and Brown child fans in Harlem in 2017 and the dashiki-wearing Ali with Black adult fans in Kinshasa, Zaire, in 1974 are eerily — actually culturally — indistinguishable.
In 1966, Ali, after refusing to serve in the U.S. military, said he did that because, in his words, “Why should … [I] put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs … on Brown people in Vietnam while … so-called Negro people in … [America] are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
In 2016, Kaepernick, after refusing to rise for the national anthem during a preseason game, said he did that because, in his words, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people. … There’s a lot of things that needs to change. One … is police brutality. There … [are] people being murdered … and [cops] not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing [Black] people.”
He’s right in using “The Star-Spangled Banner” as his platform because it’s a racist song written by a slave-owner. In the third stanza of that song, which initially was created as a poem in 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote: “No refuge could save the … slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave. And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” This stanza glorified the murder of Blacks who escaped U.S. slavery and gained freedom by enlisting as paid soldiers in Britain’s Corps of Colonial Marines during combat with America in the War of 1812 and the Battle of Fort McHenry in 1814. Key advocated for the wholesale extermination of those ultimately unarmed Black soldiers contrary to accepted rules of warfare. Furthermore, he proclaimed that Black men, women and children are an “inferior race of people.”
Let’s get back to Nike’s re-signing of Kaepernick. Nike didn’t do that because of its belief that Black Lives (or voices) Matter. It did it because it made great financial sense. In fact, as Eric Smallwood, president of Apex Marketing Group, told CNBC, in less than 24 hours, Nike was already estimated to have received more than $43 million worth of free media exposure. And Smallwood continued, “Right now what this means is they are winning the battle from the public relations side.”
Earlier in this article, I admitted to my hypocrisy — actually, my heartlessness — for singing Nike’s praises. Here’s why. Since the 1970s, beginning in South Korea and Taiwan, and especially in the 1990s in other countries, Nike — a $30 billion international corporation — was exposed for exploiting adult and child workers in sweatshops. However, it apologized and agreed to change its ways and really did begin implementing some change during the following decade. Unfortunately, it wasn’t permanent. In fact, in order to take even more advantage of its low-wage employees, Nike decided to focus its workforce primarily in China and Vietnam, where labor unions were outlawed. And when the workers in those two countries began complaining, Nike closed its factories there and moved to more easily exploitable — i.e., needier — countries. For example, Nike paid its Indonesian workers $1.25 a day. That’s daily, not hourly.
As disclosed just last year at the Africa- and India-based news website Quartz (qz.com), which reports in 115 countries in 19 languages, “Students and activists around the world participated in a day of protest against Nike, organized by United Students Against Sweatshops. The demonstrations … represented an escalation of allegations against Nike. …” The protesters alleged poverty wages, illegal child labor, working conditions in excess of 90 degrees, anti-union harassment, summary firings, and refusal to allow an independent monitoring group called Workers Rights Consortium to observe on-site factory working conditions.
However, in all fairness to Nike, I must mention that from 2002-2004, it did resume efforts to begin treating workers humanely by regularly auditing its worldwide factories for health and safety violations. But that’s not nearly enough.
On Public Enemy’s 1991 classic “Shut ‘Em Down” track, Chuck D rhymes”
I like Nike but wait a minute
The neighborhood supports so put some money in it
They gotta give up the dough
To my town
Or else we gotta shut ‘em down
I’m not necessarily suggesting that Black folks “shut down” Nike completely (at least not yet). Instead, I’m simply requesting that Nike “put some money” in the hands of its poor workers of color throughout the world. And you can help make that happen. The next time you buy Nike sneakers or gear (if you do decide that’s OK), call the company’s corporate headquarters at (800) 344-6453 and tell it that those sneakers or that gear will be the final purchase if Nike doesn’t immediately end international worker exploitation.
And then thank Nike for directly supporting Black freedom of speech in America and for indirectly telling the fake American president to go to hell.
Ali was right in 1984 when, three years after his career had ended, he stated, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.” And Kaepernick was right when, near the end of the Nike commercial, he stated, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”
And I’m right when, at the end of this column, I state, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing the purchase of fly Nike sneakers and other gear.” After all, what’s more important — enriching the exploiter or empowering the exploited?
But if you can’t resist the urge to patronize Nike, at least make that phone call. In other words, “Just Do It!”
Michael Coard, Esq., can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His “Radio Courtroom” show can be heard on WURD96.1FM. And his “TV Courtroom” show can be seen on PhillyCam/Verizon/Comcast.