Kaeper­nick still NFL’s big­gest face

Sea­son opener takes back seat to Nike’s strik­ing new ad­verts

The Guardian Weekly - - Sport - Bryan Ar­men Gra­ham

Nowhere was the gal­vanis­ing ca­pac­ity of sport, the inim­itable way a team can bring to­gether strangers, re­gard­less of race or gen­der or so­cio-eco­nomic back­ground, more ap­par­ent than last Thurs­day night in Philadel­phia. It was the open­ing night of the NFL sea­son and the home­town Ea­gles, who in Fe­bru­ary won a Super Bowl for the ages be­fore get­ting dis­in­vited from the White House cel­e­bra­tions, were rais­ing the ban­ner com­mem­o­rat­ing the team’s first cham­pi­onship in 57 years be­fore open­ing their ti­tle de­fence against the At­lanta Fal­cons.

Yet only days af­ter Nike con­firmed that Colin Kaeper­nick would be the face of a new ad cam­paign, the sub­ject of the NFL player protests con­tin­ued to di­vide opin­ion among sup­port­ers of a team whose ros­ter in­cludes some of the NFL’s most so­cially con­scious play­ers. Last Thurs­day, none of the Ea­gles – or Fal­cons – protested dur­ing the an­them, save for de­fen­sive end Michael Ben­nett, who sat down at the very end of the song. Even with­out any overt protests, the an­them de­bate still pro­vokes di­ver­gent views.

Neal McLau­rin, a 39-year-old fit­ness coach from North Philadel­phia who spent last Thurs­day af­ter­noon hawk­ing bot­tles of wa­ter for a dol­lar apiece to fans ex­it­ing the sub­way, said he be­lieved fully in the play­ers’ right to demon­strate, al­though he ad­mit­ted “the mes­sage got lost a long time ago”.

“I don’t think peo­ple truly un­der­stand to the full ex­tent of it or are even try­ing to un­der­stand,” he said. “They just think [the play­ers] are be­ing re­bel­lious. They don’t un­der­stand the third verse of the na­tional an­them, what it says about slav­ery, and the flag that we pledge al­le­giance to is a flag of war. This is sup­posed to be Amer­ica, right? We should have the free­dom to protest if you’re not harm­ing any­one. They give the Ku Klux Klan and the Nazis the free­dom to sow hate.”

Nearby was Sonny For­ri­est Jr, a 60-year-old from the city’s West Oak Lane neigh­bour­hood who said he served a tour of duty with the US Army in Viet­nam, where he lost his left leg. He said the mes­sage of the protests has been mis­char­ac­terised.

“It’s not anti-mil­i­tary,” said For­ri­est, who was wear­ing a hat read­ing ‘Viet­nam Vet­eran’. “It’s about free­dom of speech. His protest was good. It’s about black in­jus­tice, how black peo­ple are get­ting killed in the streets.”

While Philadel­phia boasts a more lib­eral fan­base than NFL teams in more con­ser­va­tive ar­eas, the idea of fail­ing to hon­our the na­tional an­them is still un­ac­cept­able for many Ea­gles sup­port­ers. Tracy Healy, a 47-year-old bar­tender mak­ing her first trip to Lin­coln Fi­nan­cial Field, said she found the protests highly dis­re­spect­ful.

“I see both ways, but there are so many peo­ple fight­ing for your coun­try, so many in­cred­i­ble peo­ple, the least you could do is stand up,” said Healy, who be­came an Ea­gles fan through her boyfriend and was mak­ing her first visit to the team’s home ground. “It might not be the right opin­ion but it’s my opin­ion. I re­ally think it’s dis­re­spect­ful.”

MacKen­zie Faight, a 24-year-old fi­nan­cial worker at­tend­ing the game

with three friends, said that she un­der­stood the im­por­tance of the is­sues raised by the play­ers, but was trou­bled by Nike’s de­ci­sion to pub­licly align it­self with Kaeper­nick.

The two-minute com­mer­cial, which had its na­tional tele­vi­sion pre­miere dur­ing last Thurs­day night’s game, cen­tres around the slo­gan: “Be­lieve in some­thing. Even if it means sac­ri­fic­ing ev­ery­thing.” Ac­cord­ing to Edi­son Trends, a dig­i­tal com­merce re­search com­pany, Nike sales surged 31% af­ter the ad was un­veiled.

But Faight, who is from the Philadel­phia sub­urb of Bris­tol, found the en­tire pack­age ap­palling.

“I un­der­stand their mes­sage, but I don’t agree that it should be [Kaeper­nick], nor should it say that he made a sac­ri­fice be­cause he didn’t make any sac­ri­fices,” she said. “The ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice, in my opin­ion, com­ing from a mil­i­tary and navy back­ground, is de­fend­ing your coun­try is giv­ing your life. The ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice is your life. He didn’t give his life for any­thing.”

Yet oth­ers found the ad­ver­tise­ment in­spir­ing, such as Jor­dan Ricks, a 30-year-old chef and au­thor who came up from Delaware.

“I think it was a bold move,” he said. “But I also be­lieve that more peo­ple will start try­ing to find out the rea­son be­hind it, be­cause you’ve got a di­a­logue to it now. Be­fore it was just what he’s do­ing, his ac­tions. Now the words are com­ing to­gether. They for­get that we’re OK with stand­ing for the flag, but we take knees for the fallen.”

As for the play­ers, Mal­colm Jenk­ins, who has been a cen­tral fig­ure in the player protests and has raised his first dur­ing the an­them, chose to stand for the Star-Span­gled Ban­ner last Thurs­day. He said the drive for so­cial jus­tice among play­ers was mov­ing into a new stage.

“I mean, at this point, it’s im­por­tant for us as a move­ment to change and adapt to the con­text of the sit­u­a­tion. I think there’s a huge need for us to turn the at­ten­tion to­wards the is­sues and, not only the is­sues, but what play­ers are do­ing in their com­mu­ni­ties to ef­fect change,” Jenk­ins said.

An­gela Weiss/Getty

Nike’s new ad­vert with NFL quar­ter­back Colin Kaeper­nick

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