Nike Inc fashions itself as a friend of African Americans. Signing up Colin Kaepernick, the NFL Kneeler, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Just Do It is only another example of Nike inspiring people of colour to be believe they too can achieve success. Like Michael Jordan. Like Lebron James. Like Serena Williams. Phil Knight’s Nike, according to his own narrative, encourages African Americans to imagine the possibility of personal greatness.
Lebron James said it as well as anyone when he tweeted his backing of Colin Kaepernick’s endorsement by Nike: “I stand with Nike all day, every day.” The NBL superstar, clearly, perceives Nike Inc as an entity that transcends sports shoes and apparel. Nike, then, is not just a fabulously expensive running shoe but a vision or set of principles that we might “stand with”.
Serena Williams, on hearing the news of Kaepernick’s promotion, claimed she was “especially proud to be a part of the Nike family today #justdoit”. Not everyone in the far-flung Nike family is going to be as enthusiastic about Nike’s – sorry, Kaepernick’s – inspirational message of hope: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”. Nike workers in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, for example, may elect to keep their noses to the sewing machines and make no comment about taking the knee for the national anthem. They are always going to stand when the local band strikes up “Soldiers of Vietnam, we go forward, /With the one will to save our Fatherland”. Taking the knee in Communist Vietnam really does mean “sacrificing everything”. Government agents, according to Human Rights Watch, beat activists and bloggers with impunity.
If Nike were serious about their “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything” advertising campaign they could have chosen the authentically courageous Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, known by her pseudonym Mother Mushroom, as the public face of their company. Now that would have been cutting edge. On the other hand, one has to wonder whether Colin Kaepernick, a millionaire American sportsman and Time magazine’s runner-up Person of the Year for 2017, is really at the forefront of dissent. After all, radical chic is not exactly a dangerous career move in the United States these days. Maybe American superstars, sporting or otherwise, are so indulged and feted and brainwashed by PC ideology they no longer know what a fair or unfair thing is anymore.
Back to human rights abuses. In March last year, First Lady Melania Trump presented Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh with an International Women of Courage Award in absentia, although that did not prevent Vietnam’s one-party state subsequently sentencing the blogger to 10 years in jail. Then again, the dirty secret of multinational companies operating in the developing world is that “economic stability” and uninterrupted profiteering can be the upside of political crackdowns in developing countries.
The counter-argument, of course, is that at least Nike Inc provides work for impoverished people in the developing world. Better off gluing the rubber whatsit to the plastic thingamabob on an assembly-line for a few dollars a day in an industrial district on the outskirts of (say) Jakarta than eking out a living in a rural village. Back in the 1990s, Phil Knight’s Nike was lambasted for behaviour in the developing world akin to a rapacious eighteenth-century manufacturing magnate in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. The corporation has put a lot of money into cleaning up its act since those days – at least on the PR front. Nike has even joined The Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Some critics are persuaded that Nike has changed its ways; others are less convinced.
Either way, Nike Inc is not exactly inspiring its 100,000 workers in Indonesia to achieve personal greatness. But what about the African-American community? To answer that we might first have to turn the question on its head. What have African-Americans done to advance the personal greatness of the shareholders at Nike Inc? Quite a lot, as it turns out. The company has exploited the bohemian fashionableness of inner-city black youths. Their street credibility (or, if we must, creds) helped the Nike corporation become one of the most profitable enterprises on Planet Earth. Once African-American youths adopted Nike as their own, white wankstas and wannabes, born in safe neighbourhoods and heirs to comfortable middle-class jobs, embraced the casual-wear trend in a frantic attempt to keep it real – suit and tie at work; on the weekend, baggies, hoodies and the ubiquitous Nikes. Nike is cool (or lit or whatever) because African-American fashionistas made it so.
The polarising Colin Kaepernick might have seemed like an odd choice for a company selling expensive sports gear to the broadest market possible, but black youngsters mostly admire Kaepernick. The corporation took a hit on the stock market after the Kaepernick announcement, and yet online sales reputedly increased 31 per cent over the same period. Some people have been burning their Nike footwear, although they probably have about as much street credibility as Christian kids burning their Beatles’ records in 1966.
But the question remains. What has Nike done for African Americans, apart, of course, from the likes of Michael Jordan and the Serena Williams? Naomi Klein’s No Logo: Taking Aim at the Bullies, which appeared in 1999, provided a blistering – and still unanswered – account of the scam Nike perpetrated on the African-American community. Phil Knight always presented himself as both a magnate and a philanthropist, and he did often donate money to inner-urban sporting clubs. At the same time, though, he offered an emerging generation of black youngsters, ensnared by unemployment, drugs, gangs, crime and homicide, a hollow fantasy rather than the possibility of a genuine livelihood. The latest Nike sneaker was never a sneaker “but a kind of talisman with which poor kids can run out of the ghetto and better their lives.” Nike, in the opinion of Naomi Klein, turned out to be “the guy who steals your job, then sells you a pair of overpriced sneakers and yells, ‘Run like hell!’ Hey, it’s the only way out of the ghetto, kid. Just do it.”
Bernie Sanders, the left-wing populist or democratic socialist, as he would term it, was making a similar case to Klein’s back in the late 1990s: “Apparently, Nike believes that workers in the United States are good enough to purchase your shoe products, but are no longer worthy enough to manufacture them.” Who would believe that some twenty years later the neo-liberal Republican Party (at least on economic matters) would be commandeered by a conservative-populist president demanding that manufacturing return to the United States. Or, just as bizarrely, progressives would be commending the courage and foresight of a new Nike advertising campaign?
And there lies the genius of the Colin Kaepernick promotion. Nike has, in one blow, has enhanced its reputation amongst African-Americans, while co-opting many of those on the left who claim they speak truth to corporate power. Nike could have cut its advertising budget by 1% and compassionately doubled the wage of its workers in the developing world. But why do that when paying the (former) NFL Kneeler a small fortune has united black youngsters and white leftists in their common desire to stick it to The Man, despite the fact that The Man in question is informed by an economic patriotism that wants to bring jobs back from overseas to America. It is a testament to Nike’s belief that bold and imaginative advertising always trumps reality.
It is also a testimony to the fact that a confederation of fabulously wealthy and powerful media commentators, personalities, athletes and celebrities is in cahoots with fabulously wealthy and powerful transnational corporate entities. A populist uprising anyone?
Daryl McCann blogs at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au and tweets at @dosakamccann