If the past year or two has taught us anything, it’s that flawed and damaged people are everywhere. Collectively, we once knew that, but somehow society forgot. There’s a reason why every American high school student is assigned Hawthorne’s short story, “Young Goodman Brown.” Understanding the story takes you into adulthood. When you think of people as either purely good or purely evil, you’re still a child.
Young Goodman Brown learned that when you turn your eyes to the forbidden forest of impure thoughts and deeds, you’ll see that everyone has strayed. And if you make the mistake of looking for a hero—it doesn’t matter if it’s MLK or Gandhi or Moses—you’re going to find lapses of character. The moment you view anyone as a model of purity, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
If you’re seeking good character, remember Iago who spoke endlessly of love and truth and honor, but who used these fine words in service of despicable behavior. So always be wary of rhetoric. Stirring rhetoric can only reveal the possibility of good character but it’s no indication of whether the messages are being lived.
So don’t chase after noble words, chase character. The way to do that is to find people who’ve made meaningful sacrifice. It’s only through personal sacrifice that inspiring words carry weight and reveal the presence of character.
In the world of sports, there have been a handful of exemplars of personal sacrifice, notably Muhammad Ali (who, as a result of his antiwar stance, was stripped of his ability to box during the prime of his career), Roberto Clemente (who lost his life delivering aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims), and Jackie Robinson (who smashed baseball’s color barrier, at great personal risk).
In ten or twenty years, Colin Kaepernick will routinely be mentioned in the same breath as these other sports heroes. Through his decision to kneel during the national anthem, he’s put skin in the game. Kaepernick has risked his career and his safety to bring attention to police brutality and bellicose nationalism. He has afflicted the comfortable and paid the price. Not surprisingly, he’s also one of the first NFL athletes to embrace veganism. I’ve yet to meet the guy, but I have little doubt that he chose veganism because it resonates with his values of compassion and justice.
And now, one of the biggest sports stories of the week is that Kaepernick has been named the face of Nike’s new “Just Do It” 30th Anniversary advertising campaign.
Just as it is with people, it’s always easy to question the motivations of corporations. Any corporation of any size has done shameful things. In Nike’s case, the most egregious of these misdeeds has involved a history of appalling sweatshop and child labor practices.
But just as it’s wise to not permanently write anyone off—redemption of even the most stained character can begin at any moment—so too can a corporation start down the road toward being a genuine force for good. In putting its own brand on the line to feature Colin Kaepernick, Nike is acting with genuine courage. The company has, at least for a moment, put itself on the right side of history. They’ll alienate customers for doing this, and not just from the MAGA crowd. Expect the usual progressives living in glass houses to use this campaign as a pretext to belittle Nike for its past wrongdoings.
Despite what its detractors will say, Nike is taking a risk here, and showing real courage. They could have taken the safe route and chosen Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods for this campaign—superstars who are ciphers when it comes to doing anything for anyone but themselves. But Nike instead went with someone risky, who has arguably taken the most courageous stance of anyone in professional sports in this generation.
Whether it’s people, nations, or corporations, pure evil and pure good are as rare as hen’s teeth. When assessing character, the only sensible course is to replace binary thinking with a continuum, and to be charitable and tentative in your judgments and slow in reaching them—“Judge not lest ye be judged” remains among the most useful maxims to live by.
Nike’s move does not, in one fell swoosh, elevate them from a shitty company to sainthood. But it does make me believe that there’s an element of honor and decency at its core. This character is capable of growing stronger if given encouragement and support. I certainly have an anti-corporate bias, but I can recognize courage when I see it.
Colin Kaepernick has shown real courage when it comes to putting his career on the line in order to do what’s right. And now Nike is showing courage by positioning its brand alongside someone willing to risk everything to expose the dark underbelly of America.
We should never write anyone off. Corporations are as capable of redemption and becoming part of the solution as any flesh-and-blood human. And the first step toward virtue is often the hardest and most signficant. Welcome aboard, Nike.