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Democrats Discuss: Nike and Colin Kaepernick

Football season is upon us, and, thanks to the innovations of contemporary culture wars, that means it’s also time to talk politics. Last week, in between posts criticizing the Obama administration economic policy and attacking Kamala Harris over the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, President Donald Trump found time to tweet, “What was Nike thinking?” referring to Nike’s decision to renegotiate their contract with Colin Kaepernick to make him the centerpiece of the brand’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign.

Kaepernick was an NFL quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who famously became persona non grata after he began kneeling during the national anthem in order to protest police brutality, igniting a national conversation about race, sports and meaning of patriotism with, according Gallup, the majority of black people supporting the protests, and the majority of white people disapproving. 

While the ad was mostly met with praise, including positive tweets from high-profile celebrities like LeBron James, Serena Williams and, bizarrely enough, former CIA director John O. Brennan, the backlash started almost immediately, including a boycott, an accompanying hashtag, and a series of viral social media posts of Nike customers cutting the logo off their clothes and burning their shoes.

Which begs the question: What was Nike thinking?

There’s an old story that circulates on the internet every now and again that at some point in the 1990s, celebrated shoemaker Michael Jordan was being interviewed, and got asked why he never uses his platform to speak about important social or political issues, to which he replied, “Republicans buy shoes, too.” And while Jordan never actually said that, the lesson still makes logical sense: if Nike wants to sell as many shoes as possible, it doesn’t make sense to alienate potential buyers with politically divisive ads.

But who are Nike’s potential buyers? According to an article in Forbes, Nike expects 80 percent of its projected growth to come from 10 international and 2 domestic cities (New York and Los Angeles). Within those cities, apparel companies are targeting a group which marketing strategist Pamela Danziger refers to as HENRYs (High-Earners-Not-Rich-Yet) – people with enough money to buy $200 kicks, but young enough to not yet see themselves as the man.

All this means politics have shifted so the audience for consumer marketing is much more left-wing than the electorate, which is important for clothing brands because young urbanites, especially young African American urbanites, are seen as the tastemakers in American pop culture, despite those groups being systemically underrepresented in American government. Therefore, Colin Kaepernick can be both cool and losing election issue for Democrats – who, if they say they're against the protests like Mike Capuano did, lose support from their younger, more diverse base. And if they defend the protests, like Beto O’Rourke did, lose support from their older, whiter constituency.

At least, the GOP certainly thinks so. In addition to Trump, Republican candidates at every level of government have voiced opposition to the Nike ad and the anthem protestors. Former Tennessee gubernatorial candidate Diane Black announced that she and her husband had boycott the NFL over the protests, and just a few days ago Wisconsin governor Scott Walker went on multi-part tweet storm complete with a Bitmoji of himself in a flannel shirt standing in front the American flag. Republicans would like voters to think of this Nike ad as a defining topic in the 2018 midterms – not because it’s the government’s job to legislate on what type of ads Nike runs, but because the performance of patriotism and the alignment with anti-black sentiment will distract people from the unpopularity of the Republican Party platform.

After attempts to cut the American Care Act and replace it with a bill that, according to a polling average by FiveThirtyEight, had an average net support of negative 13 percent, the Republican Party reconfigured to focus on tax reform. And it succeeded in passing a tax plan that, according to a RealClearPolitics average, had a net approval rating of negative 5 percent. These issues run to the core beliefs of the GOP – poor people who can’t afford to pay their medical bills deserve to die, and the wealthiest people in the world pay too much in taxes and deserve to hoard more of their money. 

To combat this messaging problem, Republicans members of congress have come up with two strategies: lie, and say you’re for free healthcare, as Trump did during his 2016 campaign; or pivot towards race-based attacks and appeals to the dignity of American veterans – the majority of whom support the decision of NFL players to kneel during the anthem.

On Nov. 6, voters will be going to the polls and they’ll be given the option between the party dedicated to healthcare reform, opioid relief and equitable tax reform, or the party that won’t stop talking about Nike ads.

Mason Kereliuk is a freshman studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think of Kavanaugh's hearing? Let Mason know by dropping a tweet @masonkereliuk.

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