Now What Do We Do With Nike?

Can a corporation with such a checkered history be a tool for good?

Yesterday, Nike Inc. announced the launch of a new campaign to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of their famous slogan, “Just Do It.” Headlined by the currently blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the advertisement has — intentionally, no doubt — caused quite a stir. Progressive sport fans and observers seemed excited to see Kaepernick himself, who has been relatively quiet over the past two years, reenter the public discourse. Conservatives set to cutting up their socks and setting their shoes on fire.

While it is certainly heartening to see Kaepernick being given a platform, specifically as the NFL season is about to kick off, it’s hard to uncouple that from what we know about Nike’s labor practices. As the past head of my university’s Students Against Sweatshops chapter, I’ve spoken with workers from Nike’s factories in southeast Asia. They’ve told stories about unimaginable working conditions, rampant union-busting, and worse. So it’s hard to view ads like this as anything more than performative when Nike has the power to enact real material change in people’s lives and consistently refuses to do so.

But while Nike’s labor record obviously needs to be included in any conversation of their net social impact, over the past 24 hours the only semi-prominent media member to bring it up as a way to detract from their new campaign was the conservative provocateur Clay Travis:

The hypocrisy that Travis is pointing out is real. Nike stands for progressive movements that don’t cost it money, and remains silent on those that might. It uses its platform to advocate for the liberation of certain black and brown bodies, while being instrumental in the suppression of others. It’s donations to conservative politicians like Paul Ryan reveal Nike’s antipathy toward achieving any actual, structural change. But those like Travis that only now point this out as a way to undercut the potential power of this current campaign are far surpassing Nike in their own performativeness. Clay Travis doesn’t care about sweatshop workers in Asia. As he’s written in the past, “Since I’m a capitalist who believes in making as much money as you possibly can, I don’t begrudge Nike for taking advantage of virtual slave labor wages to produce its shoes overseas.” So to now bring up their immoral labor practices as a sort of “gotcha”, he’s showing himself to be as unmoored from any actual beliefs as Nike is.

Despite the company being an amoral morass, this ad and what it means should still be celebrated. We should understand this as is a lagging indicator of shifting public opinion. Again, Nike isn’t going to do anything that it thinks will cost money, so it stands to reason that we’ve reached some sort of inflection point where it behoofs a company to come out in support of his movement. Marist polls over the past few years have shown that support for Kaepernick’s movement has been steadily growing, it says something about the shifting discourse in this country that a company with a customer base as large as Nike’s sees profitability in publicly opposing police brutality.

And while that’s certainly a cynical way to view this, I think there’s something positive and exciting about it anyway. The company has run separate ad campaigns centering on queer athletes, and recently released a line of Nike hijabs for female Muslim athletes, both of which were and are meaningful things to their respective communities. It would certainly be better if the company made those decisions without money being an incentive, but considering the constraints of the world we live in, this is still pretty good.