Yes, boycott Nike! But not for the reasons of compulsory patriotism.
I unapologetically support Colin Kaepernick and his politics. Ending police brutality, mass incarceration, and the school-to-prison pipeline, challenging White supremacy, and uplifting inner-city youth are cornerstones of my own politics. I also support and respect his choice to become the face of Nike. I will never be in his position and honestly do not know what choice I’d personally make. But I do know that the money and exposure he’ll receive will help spread his politics and create material, substantive change in the lives of real people.
Having said all this, I have not purchased or even worn any Nike apparel in nearly twenty years. I see no need to change that now. I understand that, for many, Nike’s swoosh will become a symbol of resistance. Nike adopted Kaepernick; Kaepernick embodies resistance; therefore Nike embodies resistance. This logic is further dramatized by the anti-Nike backlash with people burning their clothes and sneakers. If they are burning Nikes then Ishould proudly wear my Nikes to demonstrate my political stance. This makes sense, but it’s instructive to separate Kaepernick from Nike and realize that you can support Kaepernick without supporting Nike. Kaepernick is a real person with a good heart and genuine intentions. Nike is a corporation looking to capitalize on its investment. I guarantee that Nike did a cost-benefit analysis and calculated that “resistance purchases” will outweigh “patriot boycotts.”
That’s not to say that a profit-generating enterprise cannot have good intentions. Let’s assume, for instance, that Nike has suddenly grown a moral conscience and it wants to support Kaepernick’s causes and challenge both Trump and the NFL. This is all wonderful. But that does not negate the suffering caused by Nike. Sweatshops are real. America does not allow its 12 year old kids to work 12 hours a day for $1.50 an hour under brutal conditions. But that’s exactly what happens in Nike sweatshops. If it’s wrong in America why is it okay in other countries? Social justice neither begins nor ends with national borders. And to be clear, America did have similar conditions prior to the late nineteenth/early twentieth century labor movement, and, currently, we force inmates to work for corporations, earning pennies an hour—see the #August21 national prison strike.
Billon-dollar corporations also sell us things we don’t need by enticing us to overconsume. This drive to overconsume is a form of psychological domination. How many slogans and logos swim in our heads and dictate our thoughts? It also contributes to climate change and environmental degradation. America accounts for 5% of the world’s population but consumes 25% of the world’s fossil fuels. Not exactly a sustainable lifestyle.
Within the larger power structure, corporate money dominates the two-party system. Mainstream, establishment politicians might as well walk around in money suits and corporate logos. At least they’d be more honest. In terms of Nike, it contributed over $500,000 during the 2018 election cycle, over half of which has gone to Republicans, and it has spent an additional $600,000 on lobbying. Former Nike CEO Phil Knight also contributed $500,000 to Oregon’sRepublican gubernatorial candidate.
Finally, embodying your resistance through the swoosh mediates your politics through a corporation. If the personal is political, then your life-and-politics just became commodified. We live in a capitalistic society and such mediation is difficult to avoid. But that’s the whole point of resistance.
Kaepernick’s relationship with Nike has a political benefit—he’ll use the money and exposure to his advantage. But what’s the benefit for the rest of us? Spending money we don’t have, buying clothes we don’t need, and making more money for billon-dollar CEOs? We can just as easily create our own T-shirts and donate the saved money to one of the many organizations that Kaepernick supports.
Simultaneously supporting Kaepernick and boycotting Nike is not a contradiction. It’s a political stance that recognizes the connections across issues and the complexity of social change. Revolution is not a corporate slogan.
Dr. Jason Del Gandio is a professor, public pedagogue, and engaged intellectual dedicated to radical social change. You can visit his website for more information.