Nike’s Athletes: Advocates or Accusers?

Kaepernick sympathizers kneel to protest police brutality against African Americans.

Angie Leung, Reporter

In early September, the release of Nike’s controversial ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams and other sportsmen reverted to social issues raised by athletes in the past.


Colin Kaepernick

Over the past two years, the American public has remembered Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, which protested police brutality and racial discrimination against unarmed blacks.

In fact, Kaepernick’s protest in 2016 championed Nike’s social message: encouraging athletes to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

However, Nike’s inspiring message has provoked hostile backlash exasperated through social media, after the recent release of the company’s ad.

Courtesy of Creative Commons
Colin Kaepernick’s protest in 2016 championed Nike’s social message: encouraging athletes to “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Kaepernick’s defiance of the traditional stance during the national anthem, polarizing patriotism and freedom of speech, costed him his football career. In addition, his fashion statement sporting socks depicting police officers as pigs sparked national controversy.

Despite his bold criticisms, however, Kaepernick abstained from voting during the 2016 presidential election, raising public skepticism about how the black football player plans to execute substantial change. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has claimed to eschew the public eye in hopes of diverting attention from himself to his social issue.

Building upon the fiery chambers of social media promoting Nike boycotts, a viral video of a man burning his Nike shoes dubbed Nike’s catchphrase “#JustBurnIt.”

In his letter to the CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, the National Association of Police Organizations justified its boycott of Nike products on the basis that Kaepernick did not truly “sacrifice everything”; whereas, officers who had given their lives to protecting the nation had.


Serena Williams

Another athlete of color featured in Nike’s ad, tennis player Serena Williams, accused the umpire of her U.S. Open Championship match of sexism.

While celebrity athletes commend Williams’ powerful fighting spirit, others highlight the double standards placed on female and male athletes: Male tennis players, unlike their female counterparts, can escape the penalizations of illegal coaching.

Creative Commons
Serena Williams plays at the US Open 2013.

The United States Tennis Association as well as the Women’s Tennis Association support Williams’s claims of sexist umpirage.

During the match, the umpire, Carlos Ramos, claimed Williams violated court rules three times for illegal coaching — which many argue to not have occurred — thrashing her racket and referring to the ump as a “liar” and “thief,” costing the 23-time Grand Slam winner the match as well as the overall record of having most Grand Slam wins.

Though some declare Ramos is competent, the predominant lack of support for the experienced umpire has caused several officials to fear Ramos’ legacy: being called out for making an unpopular judgement.

In mid-September, umpires brought up the notion of boycotting Williams’s matches and forming an umpires union.

As sport fields merge with the political realm, an athlete’s image, intertwined with political and social messages, drastically changes, usually generating mass polarization backlash. Social media provides the outlet for passive aggression, negativity and impassioned consumer decisions — though they all are protected by free speech to some degree.

Our Presentation community actively values expression of ideas. However, this right is not always welcomed in the workplace, as demonstrated by Kaepernick’s and Williams’ controversies, considering that the notion of boycotts and blackballing was the immediate response to an uncomfortable or unpopular social issue endorsed by athletes.

Thus, athletes are trapped in a dilemma: Voice their beliefs and suffer unemployment or stifle their passions in order to entertain the public, upon which their job depends.

Perhaps the reason why these athletes became controversial issues is not because they freely voiced their opinions, but, rather, because they lacked the appropriate measure to execute their social beliefs. Disrespecting the flag and its national protectors is unlikely to spur motivation in police officers to embrace the social cause. Moreover, insulting an umpire is unlikely to substantiate one’s own condemnation of that official.

Whereas the repercussions seem insignificant for star athletes, at the hands of these controversies comes personal sacrifice.

Although the NFL blackballed Kaepernick, and his employment at Nike accumulates to millions of dollars annually, he sacrificed his passion to play football to forward his social cause. Williams’ impulsive decision on the court defined her achievements, as she lost the opportunity to break the record of the most Grand Slam wins, but she nevertheless stands by her social cause to reveal sexism on the court.

Yes, NAPO’s argument that the police officers who have given up their lives to protect the country exhibit sacrifice is true, but its statement does not reduce the significance of neither Kaepernick’s nor Williams’ personal sacrifice. Sacrifice is not a comparison.

Thus, Nike’s athletes have set a precedent for the modern role of athletes: champions on the field and social advocates to the press. Just how they choose to pursue their beliefs will determine if they are the next controversial issue.