Colin Kaepernick Nike Ad Reactions Show Trump Has Distorted the NFL Protest Conversation

Colin Kaepernick appeared in an advertisement for Nike. Almost immediately people started burning their be-Swooshed sneakers for ... some reason.

I couldn't help but think of Beto O'Rourke.

The Democratic Texas state representative taking on Senator Ted Cruz recently got the internet's viral treatment last month after defending NFL players who protest during the national anthem—"I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up or take a knee for your rights anytime, anywhere, anyplace," he said at a Houston town hall.

But it's what he said before all that—when he was asked "how disrespectful it is" by an audience member—that I think matters in when thinking about Kaepernick.

"Reasonable people can disagree on this issue, let's begin there," O'Rourke said.

Maybe. But that isn't what's happening.

Starting a bonfire with your size 10s or gnawing the swoosh off your mid-calves, you can call that many things but reasonable... reasonable isn't one of them.

First of all, it's pointless—as 10,000 people before me said, Nike already has that money. But, more importantly, it's performative. It's a public display of anger and—to borrow a phrase from Online Conservatives—pretty blatant virtue signaling. It's a ploy for retweets and the easiest possible response to a protest that began with a complicated problem: the oppression of people of color in America. It's the same type of I'll show you anger that had people taking a bat to their Keurigs.

Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt

— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) September 3, 2018

Even putting the merchandise fires aside, look at the dialogue surrounding Kaepernick. Most of the time, at best, it's misinformed and it's poisoned at worst.

Spend some time searching out responses to the Nike ad, which read "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything." Critics wonder things like what Kaepernick is doing with all the money—he has donated at least $1 million justice-focused to causes—or say he, and by proxy Nike, dishonored the troops, despite a veteran suggesting kneeling as an appropriate form of protest. Some even cited former NFL player Pat Tillman—who was killed serving as an Army Ranger—despite his family explicitly asking folks not to do that after President Donald Trump did it last year. Hitler, of course, came up.

Colin Kaepernick (center) kneels in protest alongside teammates during the national anthem prior to an NFL game on October 23, 2016 in Santa Clara, California. Some folks got very angry when ads from Nike featured Kaepernick. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Along the way, Trump has centered himself in the so-called NFL protest debate. "Numerous players, from different teams, wanted to show their 'outrage' at something that most of them are unable to define," he tweeted last month, for instance. (It's a small miracle that by 11 a.m. Tuesday he still hasn't tweeted about the Nike ad but, rest assured, the tweet will almost certainly come.)

The whole thing is red meat for Trump's most ardent supporters—the 30-some-percent of America who seem primed to stick with him forever—and he knows it. And he has worked to shape a conversation about oppression into a test for who really loves America. It's a perfect little morsel—ignore the real subject at hand—feel vaguely patriotic and get super worked up about a protest that has nothing to do with the troops, or the flag, or blue jeans, or pick-up trucks, or Rocky Mountain freedom, or whatever.

Reasonable people can't truly have a debate about the kneeling protests because somewhere along the way we've lost the thread. Despite NFL players laying out, in detail, over-and-over what the protests are meant to signify, nobody cares—or at least the crowd taking lighter fluid to their Air Monarchs doesn't care. And here we are, talking about them.

It's typically wrongheaded to label everything Trump does as a distraction but the NFL thing, yeah, it's a distraction. It's a virtual pep rally not unlike the jamborees he throws across the country. It's damn near impossible to talk about the kneeling protests now. Heels are dug in. Imagine someone now calmly saying, "Well, I think maybe it isn't the best time to protest"—I'd disagree with it—I think it's wrong and missing the point—but, hey, at least it's some sort of argument. But the NFL protests, and Kaepernick and now Nike are all part of some vortex that spits out all-caps patriotic tweets. It serves the president, and the folks torching high-tops, to approach the conversation without good faith. Because then we're seeing who makes good points, not who's loudest or angriest or most willing to be outrageous.

There are real discussions to be had—perhaps one about Nike paying to co-opt the movement sparked by Kaepernick; or perhaps a conversation about brands' efforts to affect the impression of possessing a moral compass; or perhaps an evaluation of the NFL and Nike, considering the league's shunning of Kaepernick and its 10-year deal with Nike.

Or maybe we should be talking about Kaepernick doing what he feels is right, even as he has been kept out of the league for years and, in truth, almost certainly forever.

But that's not what we're talking about. At least those are not the discussions happening at the loudest volumes. People want to get outraged about the anthem and the troops and protests and kneeling black NFL players because that's what they do now.

To (kind of) quote a famous bat-centric movie: They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some people just want to watch the sneakers burn.