Hot Take: Nike And Kaepernick with Toni Smith-Thompson

Amira chats with Toni Smith-Thompson about her reaction to Colin Kaepernick’s new Nike ad, and the complicated relationship between capitalism and athletic activism.


Amira: Hi, flame throwers. It’s me, Amira Rose Davis and I’m here with another hot take of Burn It All Down. Given the news this week of Nike unveiling Colin Kaepernick of one of the faces of their new just do it 30th anniversary campaign, I wanted to reach out to former guest of the pod, Toni Smith Thompson to get her opinions and chat a little bit about this relationship between athletic activism and capitalism, specifically corporations. If you remember, Toni as a college basketball player at Manhattanville College protest during the National Anthem in the early 2000s. She joined the pod a few months ago to drop some insights on current activism and recount her tales as well and I really wanted to call her up and have a little bit of chat about what’s going on. So Toni, welcome back to the pod.

Toni: Thanks for having me Amira.

Amira: Immediately wanted to get your reaction, what were you thinking? What are your thoughts when you saw Nike unveil Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of their 30th anniversary just do it campaign?

Toni: It was a mixed bag for me. I didn’t see the ad until it had already been posted on all of my feeds with commentary from so many of my folks with praise and excitement. And so I went into watching the ad with that in mind and it was just okay for me. I think I’m really glad to see that Colin Kaepernick still has opportunities to have a platform and use that platform. And I think there is some benefit to saying to the public that a figure like Colin Kaepernick still has a market.

At the same time, we know that there’s a long history of corporations co-opting social justice movements, think about Kendall Jenner and the atrocious Pepsi commercial that was pulled. So we know that companies see dissent and protest as profitable, not usually in the immediate crisis moment, but after, some distance afterward when it’s a little bit more muted, sometimes when it’s more palatable. And then they swoop in and sort of co-op the narrative. And it can be really hard to take the narrative back by people on the ground once that happens. So I watched it with both of those thoughts in my head.

And the other immediate thought that I had when I watched the whole two minute ad was there was a very deliberate placement of the American flag toward the end of the ad. And as it’s waving in the background, Colin Kaepernick is shown facing it. And I thought that’s such a subtle … in a two minute ad, that was really only there for maybe four seconds, so subtle but not subtle and very deliberate. And it actually is strikingly different from his original protest, which was to not salute a flag that didn’t uphold its ideals. And so, that’s a deliberate choice and I’m sure that Colin, like I certainly think that he was involved in some of the crafting of this or had some kind of input in it because I do think he’s really thoughtful from what I’ve seen. So that’s a very deliberate choice and that’s a choice that I think we need to think about what it’s in there and what messages are trying to be conveyed to us.

Amira: Yeah. It’s so interesting you bring in that point because when I saw that, I saw it was kind of a partial view of the flag and then he turned his back and I wondered, was that supposed to capture his protest? Was that supposed to be him turning his back? What is happening? And one of the reasons I had all those questions is because the ad says very little about the issues that Colin was attempting to raise and other players certainly as well. And I wonder if you could speak a little bit on how commercials like this, or the involvement of corporations can work to perhaps, maybe pivot the message of the movement.

Toni: I’m so glad you raised it the way you just did. I’ve thought about it as well. And something that was very striking to me is this ads is really inspirational and really beautiful and it’s showing example after example of athletes who have achieved exceptional feats by giving little snippets about what those athletes have done. It says, “LeBron is more than a basketball player,” and they show an image of him in his pool, they show Serena Williams, and many other athletes. What they do not do is include Colin Kaepernick as part of the narrative of the ad, he’s only the narrator. So when they said, “LeBron is more than a basketball player,” they could have easily included, don’t just be a football player be bigger than football, and shown an image of him protesting. They didn’t do that. They specifically chose to have him just convey the message but not actively be represented in the ways that you can think bigger than you and dream bigger.

So, I think when we watch corporate activism unfold, we need to ask ourselves what they are selling. This Nike ad to me displayed these examples of athletics achieving exceptional feats and that’s what it’s selling. It’s selling each of our abilities to pursue or biggest dreams, to have self-determination, to go beyond where we’re often told we can go. That’s not by itself a negative or harmful thing to message, but it can be harmful if we watch that ad and assume that because Colin is the face of it, that means the campaign’s goal is to end racism and police brutality. It is not that.

Amira: Yeah, I think that’s such an important point, the way they use what I call dream rhetoric or ideas about inspiration and I showed it in my class today and they were captivated, somebody was crying, and it was really interesting to see, it’s so effective.

Toni you protested back at Manhattanville College back in the early 2000s, also staged during the National Anthem, and I’m wondering if at that time or perhaps since then there’s been any attempts to kind of commodify your protest in any way or do you think obviously platform, but also perhaps gender has a role to play here? Phrased another way, is this a conversation that we can only have about black male athletes who engage in athletic activism, and maybe Serena Williams, given the kind of scope and disparity of endorsement deals and opportunities for black women, but women in general in sport?

Toni: That’s a great question. I certainly think the level that I was competing as an athlete had a big part to do with it and no, there weren’t really attempts to commodify my protest, although there were lots of requests to do the media circuit and perhaps if I had done those, that would have turned into something more. But generally you do the media circuit first and then the opportunities increase from there as you convey your willingness to convey your story and be used to sell a message. And I really shied away from doing that because I had concerns about how the media would filter what I was saying and that it would provoke more backlash. I had varying concerns, and there was no social media back then, so I didn’t really have a direct line to the public to be able to control what I said and when I said it. Or what other people said. So I don’t know.

And that’s something I thought about as well. I acknowledge that it’s very easy to critique ad campaigns and to critique choices that other athletes make. But in this area, where corporate influence is embedded in everything and it’s unavoidable, I don’t actually know what it looks like for an athlete to completely disassociate from those opportunities because part of the job function of an athlete now, when you look at all of it, often includes endorsements and some kind of marketing component.

So, from that perspective, is there a benefit to a powerful company saying to the public that they recognize the marketability of dissent, as our current president is vocal in his contempt for dissent? Yeah. I think that can be a positive and again, I don’t know the long game here with Colin Kaepernick and Nike. Perhaps there’s more coming that will look different and feel different. Just going off of this initial ad campaign it’s hard to know how it’s gonna play out. But there is many facets of society that we need to impact in order to produce change and certainly the public discourse and just our general culture is a big part of that. And so I don’t discount the impact that corporations and messaging and companies that have so much power to impact the public discourse can have when done deliberately, thoughtfully and with a goal that is aligned with our goals.

Amira: Right. And perhaps that’s one of the things that’s so hard about this, is that Nike is a corporation with a long history of child labor, and sweat shops, and just a few months ago huge report about sexism and misogyny in their upper offices, huge staff turnover. Certainly when you have Craig Hodges trying to boycott Nike in the mid-90s and you have their biggest brand ambassador, who stayed a political and famously saying, “Republicans buy shoes too.” That it’s interesting then to be here in 2018 and looking at Nike as some sort of corporate van guard of revolution.

Toni: Yeah, it’s certainly not that. And I don’t even think, I’ve seen some of the commentary framing this as a Nike versus NFL fight, and I don’t think it’s that either ’cause these are both really big significant institutions in our society. And that’s not the game that we’re playing here, to see which one of them is going to win. That’s not the struggle that’s happening on the ground level with everyday people, and that’s not what Colin’s protest was initially about.

But I did wanna say something about what you just touched on. I think this is where we can really have an impact wit this ad campaign. I think the point you previously made, if Nike is going to sell his image for inspiration, then we can absolutely demand that the campaign isn’t superficial. Is Nike just bottling and selling the inspiration of athletes? Or does it actually believe in supporting what the athletes are standing for, right? Are they just selling the act, or are they selling believing what they believe in? So that means, will Nike speak out when police abuse their authority and hurt or kill someone? Will Nike lobby to strengthen public education in line with LeBron’s commitment? Will they stand for and provide their own employees with the benefits and support so that all mamas can pursue their dreams like Serena? Right?

So, I think there is more we can pull out of corporations if they’re going to step into these movements and try to dip their toes in and make a profit off of real struggles, then we can absolutely demand that they go beyond the surface and not just sell the what of the actions, but also be invested in the why.

Amira: Yeah, I think that’s such a strong point.

Toni: When you think about Colin’s protest, it was really inspirational, it widened the conversation about the role of athletes, specifically black athletes, challenging the shut up and play, and it once again highlighted the contradiction between this country’s ideal and its reality. And that’s no small thing.

I remember giving an interview when he first started protesting and one of the things I said was, “What would you tell him if you could give him advice?” And I said. “Whatever he does going forward it needs to be authentic for him.” He’s taken a stand, he started a conversation, and it can really feel like a burden to feel like I always have to do this from now on for the rest of my life, I can never make a different choice, even when it feels like I need to detour or I need to follow a different path to have an impact in a different way. And I think that really that can kill us inside to feel that when it’s not authentic. And so I think that needs to be okay, and it seems like that’s what he’s doing.

I only know as an outsider, looking at his path in the last two years. But that doesn’t change the goal for the movements that predated his protest and have continued since then. I think the protest was great. It was a great spark. It was great leverage in many ways and we have to be appreciative for that and the movement continues no matter who’s flowing in and out of it on any given day.

Amira: Does this make us reassess how we … and I don’t know, I’m using we here in stand in of, perhaps the media or whatever, concocted a narrative of this being a particular renaissance in activism or a movement in a way that certainly I have talked about before and we’ve talked about together, if Colin’s the symbol and the head of the movement in what ways does that obscure the way other athletes, particular black women, have been putting themselves out there and speaking out and kneeling and absorbing fines and continuing to shut down press conferences and talk about police brutality and do things like that that don’t necessarily get that same attention. And perhaps one of the things that this moment does do is renders Colin again an individual. That sometimes gets lost as he’s been created as a symbol. And in this moment where he’s ultimately been projected as a symbol by something like Nike it allows us to actually take a step back and breathe and think about the ways that we, perhaps, symbolized him as well.

Toni: I absolutely agree with that. I think to your first point, this is part of the story line that we don’t know yet, in terms of how it changes or shapes athletes who are taking a stand in this way because Colin Kaepernick is still not back in the NFL. He’s now suing them and we don’t know how that part of it is going to play out. So if he ends up back in the league and not protesting, or if he ends up not back in the league, I don’t think that does much to make it available for athletes to really exercise their first amendment rights to free expression or the way we would like those rights to be interpreted and upheld. I don’t think it’s a good formula for an athlete to protest, get blacklisted, and then bank on an endorsement deal because most of us are not gonna have that. And so I don’t think that’s a model we should bank on at all.

I think a win, just in terms of the labor dispute, a win would be that he still has a job in the NFL and he’s not pressured to not protest. Right? Like, you can protest or not protest and that shouldn’t impact your job. That should just be what it is, and we’re not there yet. And I don’t know if we’ll get there. And so, from that perspective I don’t know that this example kind of moves the ball forward in this movement, in the ability for people to express themselves or dissent.

Amira: And I’m wondering, given how much we heard about NFL ratings being down, despite the fact that say NASCAR’s was down too, or whatever. But does this represent any kind of indication in a change in market logic that is now recognizing Kap’s popularity or he’s jersey sales being high or is this just an instance of being a different target audience?

Toni: You know, I think the different sectors of our society are tolerant of different types of behavior and they have different goals. And so the goals of the NFL are very different from the goals of corporations and the media that are selling messages. And I think it’s very different than the general public to support someone or support a message and for them to stand in solidarity to demand change.

I think there’s a spectrum of support where you can sort of agree with something, you can support something, and all the way at the other end there’s solidarity. So I don’t think the general public is saying, oh I agree with what he did, or I can understand his position. Those people are not necessarily and not likely going to demand that he get his job back. Or demand that everybody has equal opportunities in employment.

So I think we just need to think about, yes money dominates. Yes, companies are thinking about their bottom line. But we also know looking at the state of our country right now, there’s also something stronger at play often than money. And that is white dominant culture, racism is still very alive and well. And Colin Kaepernick being the face of this Nike campaign is going to be popular. I think it does sell very well and I think there are pieces of it that can be helpful. At the same time it doesn’t threaten any power structure. It’s not threatening at all.

Amira: Right. ‘Cause resistance is now going to buy some Nike shoes.

Toni: Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t threaten the NFL’s power structure. It may make some people mad or feel bad. It may provoke some outrage from people, you know, we’ve seen a lot about rage already. But it doesn’t threaten any existing power structure. It just makes people feel different things. And that’s a very different type of action. One that threatens to upend power, and one that shifts people’s feelings.

Amira: Well Toni, thanks again for coming on the pod and breaking this down with us. You’re insights and perspective are always so valued, and you’re such a force. So we love hearing from you.

Toni: Thank you, too. It’s a pleasure, as always.

Shelby Weldon