Channeling Muhammad Ali Clay, Kaepernick saga and Nike’s gamble

Walid Jawad
Walid Jawad
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The line between sports and politics has always been tenuous during politically charged times.

These are such charged days in the US. The latest Nike advertisement featuring the most controversial athlete, Colin Kaepernick, stirred up an emotional response by other athletes, fans, politicians, observers and a big cross section of typically uninterested Americans.

The San Francisco 49ers Quarterback leading his team onto the field in the 2016 preseason games was observed taking a knee during the playing of the American National Anthem before the kickoff. It was his way of protesting social injustice befalling black young men for decades and the uptick in police shootings and excessive use of force.

The seemingly endless news items highlighting yet another death of black youth at the hands of law enforcement officers was intolerable. They were punished for being disenfranchised Americans who happen to be born with a different color skin to families with unfavorable circumstances in harsh environments.

The individual stories of these young men exemplifies a systematic phenomenon of “shoot-first-ask-later” exclusive to people of color in troubled pockets in major cities.

Kaepernick is not the first athlete to willingly embrace a challenge beyond the limitation of the structured rules of his game

Walid Jawad

Other teammates and fellow athletes joined Kaepernick in taking a knee during the anthem leading to a national controversy. It was quickly reframed as a disrespect to the American flag when President Donald Trump tweeted “Viewership declined 13 percent, the lowest in over a decade.

If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!” The controversy became about a position politicians took to defend the flag and show respect for the troops who put their lives on the line to keep it waving with pride and honor.

Although it is a worthy stance to take, it is a deflection from the actual issue of injustice and social strife endured by those who are living a life in the shadow of injustice and inequality. Kaepernick and others not only found their issue of equality and justice thwarted, but ultimately hijacked; to stand or to kneel - to be a patriot or to disrespect the flag.

Muhammad Ali

Kaepernick is not the first athlete to willingly embrace a challenge beyond the limitation of the structured rules of his game. Muhammad Ali Clay, the great boxer, the icon of his sport, the legendary athlete caused a controversy in his day.

His own civil rights convictions spilled over beyond the roped square of the boxing ring to the geopolitical fault lines of the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s. He was a fierce political activist fighting for what he believed was right in the same dedication and power he showed in the boxing ring.

The reasons Muhammad Ali cited for refusing his induction orders to enlist to fight in Vietnam was framed in religious terms, but it was only his way to position the argument. His issue was grounded in civil rights activism in defense of the injustice levied against black americans of that era.

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Ali was quoted as saying: “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what ... they never called me n----r, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape or kill my mother and father. ... How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail,” he said.

Ali framed his position through religion, Kaepernick through nationalism. Both objected to the same injustice relegating a section of American society to a guilty till proven innocent default.

Indeed Nike understood the risks that Kaepernick is taking. It is fair to say that they were guided by the reflection on Muhammad Ali’s case where he stood on the right side of history while risking everything.

It couldn’t be any simpler, it could not be any more powerful “Believe is something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Indeed it is a gamble Nike is taking recognizing the gravity of the historic judgment this moment is pregnant with.

Nike’s calculated gamble

For Nike to engage the controversy in such an explosive fashion, featuring Kaepernick, in a two-minute long ad is nothing short of a gamble. Nike was betting on its core consumer base of millennials and those under 35 years old to agree with its stance for justice and equality.

Digitally connected youth are overriding the narrow view and agenda of politicians by projecting unifying their voices over social media, unbound by conventional allegiances. The initial sensational reporting featured in mainstream media and social media was of people setting their Nike products on fire.

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It is easy to show powerful imagery of destruction than to show actions of support; customers deciding to buy Nike products instead of other brands cannot be easily captured in a viral clip. Yet there are observable indicators showing exactly how some customers decided to show their support for Nike’s message in actions. Nike’s stock hit a record high last Thursday at $83.90.

The analysis of Christopher Svezia, Webush Securities, placed a 12-month price level of $90 a share. This is a measurable indicators of the level of support Nike is receiving. Although a financial decision, it is part of cunning marketing effort turning their sport brand into a political statement for justice; wearing Nike is to stand for social justice.

Market segment

The SSRS Omnibus poll shows 44 percent of Nike’s core customer market segment of 18 to 34 agree with Nike compared to 32 percent who oppose. The percentage goes even higher for the 35 to 44 age group with 52 percent support.

Customers using their pocketbooks to express their political views is only one measurable aspect while social media shows another.

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Nike gained 170,000 new Instagram followers. The Kaepernick posting garnered the second most liked in Nike’s social media history. Facebook and twitter saw similar uptick for Kaepernick and Nike with more discussions, likes, comments, and shares.

Nike’s commemorative ad celebrating its 30 years of its “Just Do It” moto featuring Kaepernick transformed the company from one that competes against other sport apparel manufacturers to one that stands for social justice “Believe is something, even if it means sacrificing everything”; now in a league of its own.

Kaepernick, Serena, and …

Kaepernick is not on his own. Serena Williams the black female tennis champion and perhaps the greatest female athlete of her time had to fight bigotry on the US Open championship court last week.

This is not her first fight to bring the struggles of unequal pay and gender equality to the fore. She was penalized for the same behavior that male tennis players got away with unscathed, arguably costing her a comeback title. She exposed the double standard by which the sport treats women vs men.

When the masses are shielded from political activism by apathy and cynicism it takes someone like Colin Kaepernick to risk everything to remind a society of what their Constitution should afford them.
Walid Jawad is a former Senior Policy Analyst at U.S. Department of State and a former Washington, DC correspondent. He covered American politics for a number of TV outlets since 1997. Walid holds an undergraduate degree (B.A) in Decision Science and Management Information Systems and a Masters in Conflict Analysis and Resolution. You can follow him @walidaj.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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