Nike, Kaepernick campaign reignites freedom of speech debate


Colin Kaepernick became the face of Nike’s “Just Do it” campaign, for their 30th anniversary after he began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and social injustice. Photo Courtesy of CNN.


by Zion Curry, Jayna Dias, and Alexandra McPhee, STAFF WRITERS

3 October 2018


Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, found himself unemployed, going from a top player in the NFL, to being jobless — taking the sports world by storm, by taking a knee.  

Kaepernick quickly became a major spotlight athlete in relation to his political beliefs, which earned a large amount of scorn and distaste from fans watching, pushing the situation far beyond just football. According to NESN, Kaepernick made the decision to protest during the national anthem due to social injustice, more specifically the wrongs committed against minorities by police forces and other law enforcement officials.  He began kneeling in the midst of Americans with their hands glued to their hearts.


Platforms & politics

One of the speculations on the subject is whether or not athletes, along with other influential figures, should use their platforms express their concerns with the nation.

“[Even though] it [may] not have anything to do with the sport on a surface level…people look up to athletes, especially major ones … they’re on a high pedestal, so what they say and what they do matter. They should use [that] platform,” junior varsity football player Sam Wilson said.

Wilson showed his support on the idea that it is important for people to use their fame and influence, as Kaepernick did, in order to advocate for their own beliefs.  He went on to explain that doing something for a greater cause is worth the risk.

“Everyone has equal opportunities to share their opinions … I believe in freedom of speech,” Wilson said, after explaining how Kaepernick strategically used his given right to a large audience.

World Language teacher Juan Leal coaches both varsity girls’ soccer and freshmen boys’ soccer and said that it was wise on Kaepernick’s end to use football as a stage for his beliefs.

“He’s one heck of an athlete, he’s smart. [Kaepernick’s] a good leader and I don’t think you should hold his political views against him,” Leal added. “We need to make sure we stand up for what we believe in and if we are giving the opportunity then we need to take advantage of it. It’s a good right to have.” 

Junior Political Action Club member Kai Lidke said that people should not be so quick to use their influence as a means to express their beliefs to the nation.

“It depends on the platform. I think if you’re a filmmaker, than maybe, but with this … it’s one of those things where you’re injecting politics into something that it doesn’t necessarily need to be in … it caused an uproar, and you have to ask if that’s a good thing,” Lidke said.

Junior Ashlyn Pearson does. She stated that it was great, making a firm statement on such a widely know platform as the NFL.  

Sophomore  varsity boys soccer player Dimitri Huitron disagreed. He made the case that sports should not mix with political stances, merging different categories would only cause conflict on both ends.

“The NFL is about football. It’s not about America … football is just a game, not anything more and it shouldn’t be,” Huiton stated.


Protesting: Necessary or disrespectful?

Whether sports should be contained to their own niche or not, Kaepernick did step out of the box, and with that decision, came speculation from millions of viewers.

A large quantity of people saw his act of kneeling as disrespectful to America as whole, by defying the anthem and the flag. Others, saw it as a powerful means of protest, one that should be supported.

AP Government and Modern World History teacher Tyler Van Landeghem sponsors the Political Action Club and explained the rights that Americans have in times of protest.

“It is un-American to tell people they can’t protest during the national anthem…that is your first amendment right,” Van Landeghem added. “You should be able to protest however you want … when you find out there’s a Supreme Court case called Texas vs Johnson where a guy burns the American flag in protest, people hate it and … they want to  put in a constitutional amendment that says you can’t burn the flag and our court says, ‘no that’s their right.’ That is symbolic speech. You should be able to do that.”

The division between Kaepernick’s form of protest was split among students—even teammates. Wilson and junior, Noah Zukauskas, both members of the varsity football team, find themselves at opposing ends of the scale.

Wilson supported the movement, and stated that his beliefs prior to the situation were only reinforced after viewing Kaepernick’s actions. However, Zukauskas disagreed with the means of the protesting.

“There’s so many things that the flag stands for … [so] it’s a little disrespectful,” Zukauskas stated.

Sophomore basketball and softball player Megan Leonard took offense to Kaepernick’s actions as well. She vocalized her distaste by stating that he should not be able to disrespect the flag and that he should not receive any endorsement from it.

“I don’t think it’s right that he gets to disrespect the flag and our country like that…[the flag] represents our freedom and the veterans and the people that fought for [that] freedom,” Leonard said, later on adding that a simple tweet would be more appropriate.

However, some students expressed that what Kaepernick is protesting for, warrants the act of kneeling.

Senior Brendan Shultz was included in the circuit of people who agreed with it, as he explained the significance behind the decision.

[Kaepernick] is doing the right thing … he is kneeling because of all the shootings that are going on and no one is doing anything about it,” Shultz stated.

Huitron explained that there is significance in standing up for issues and personal beliefs, regardless of whether viewers may agree or not.

“[Kaepernick’s] just protesting the way he feels … He’s standing up for what he believes in and America is basically founded on what people believe in. So I support that. Good for him,” Huitron stated.

Pearson found herself in agreement, having said that there are a lot of problems with race and discrimination within our country, and every issue should be spoken out upon. She went on to say that it is possible to be respectful to the country as whole, but disagree with those in power, as Kaepernick did.


United we stand? Or divided we fall?

The debate between whether Kaepernick’s protesting was disrespectful or not, stems from the students’ viewpoint on patriotism, which has come into question in the wake of the events — although being patriotic was not the intent or basis for Kaepernick’s beliefs.

Assistant Varsity Football Coach Erik Aister expanded on the idea, having stated that the shift in argument became rather pointless to the overall message.

“Originally it tied to social justice, but then it shifted to patriotism, and [an] argument over patriotism … is silly. I think that people … hold the national anthem in a much higher state than it really should be. If you come into a high school classroom when we do the pledge of allegiance half the kids are sitting down,” Aister said.

Head Varsity Football Coach Tyson LeBlanc sided with his colleague, having stated that the use of media and speculation caused a complete diversion from the original message. The debate between whether or not Kaepernick’s actions were disrespectful or not became the topic of discussion rather than the social injustice he was calling attention to.

LeBlanc explained that the football team at East locks arms instead to convey the importance of togetherness and unity.

“When you look at our team and our program, we have a lot of diversity…that togetherness is important,” LeBlanc stated.

However, Lidke said that it was not substantial enough to be calling attention to anyways, since social injustice was not much of an issue.

“Colin Kaepernick has helped divide the nation … he’s brought up what he sees is an issue — which there is a lot of evidence to state that this isn’t even that much of an issue, in fact, only eleven black men in the United States have been killed that were unarmed in 2018,” Lidke said. “So all he’s done is brought a lot of controversy, he’s brought a lot of arguments, and the police now are in a really bad position due to what he did.” 

Although Lidke stated to being a believer in the freedom of speech, he said that people who protest should provide solutions, rather than just using their right to call attention to the nation’s problems.

It doesn’t prove anything, it doesn’t say anything … vocalize your ideas if you’re going to protest … say what you mean, explain why you’re right, that’s how you’re supposed to protest,” Lidke added.

Pearson, on the other hand explained that social injustice and discrimination are some of the major problems in America today, and that they should be focused on.

“There is a lot of problems with race and with religion and with discrimination in general … there is a lot of discrimination everywhere and it just happens to be in this country right now and a lot of it just happens to be race,” Pearson added. “I think that there’s a lot of problems in this world and I think that this is just another one … it’s really great that we are starting to actually notice them.” 


Nike seizes the opportunity

Although it may not have been centered around Kaepernick’s intent — discussion did spark. Nike, a brand not new to controversy, took the momentum and propelled it forward by making Colin Kaepernick the cover athlete. The feature consists of a black and white close-up on the former player’s face, along with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” according to CNN.

The move was a big gamble on Nike’s end, as America had already responded as divided on Colin Kaepernick as a figure, and the company is one of the leading sportswear brands in the country — having put just as much on the line as their new spokesperson.

LeBlanc was not swayed in the slightest over the business’s decision, still fully clothed in a Nike ensemble, which consisted of socks, sweatpants, and a jacket — all with the familiar white swoosh.

“I was a big Nike wearer prior to the situation and it definitely hasn’t changed the way I feel about it,” LeBlanc stated after admitting to supporting the company.

Sophomore football player Aidan Bradshaw admitted to feeling as though Kaepernick was being disrespectful, in terms of his protest, yet Nike’s decision has not affected the way he views their products.

“Nike is my go to brand … it’s not like they’re advertising a certain product so … I support it because it’s just the brand in general,” Bradshaw said.

Senior varsity girls’ soccer player Maddie Kastel, found that the ad represented the way in which people should not be afraid to discuss controversy, a message America should hear.

“I think the Nike campaign is a way of empowerment … it’s almost a way for branding companies to show that even though a lot a of people don’t support the controversial decision that they’re … willing to,” Kastel said.

Kastel then stated that by Nike taking the risk of putting Kaepernick as the cover athlete, it shined a light on issues occurring in the country.

Junior Alexis Salinas said that through her AP Seminar class, taken her sophomore year, she was able to understand differing perspectives and find her support in the Nike campaign as well.

“I think [AP Seminar] has helped me support freedom of speech a lot more,” Salinas added. “[It] made me more comfortable in gray areas like this [one].” 

Conversely, Leonard disagreed with how Kaepernick was protesting during the anthem, saying that his behavior did not deserve the attention that it earned.

“I don’t think that it’s right that Nike signed him … I disagree with Nike,” Leonard said.

Lidke shared an opinion with Leonard on the sponsorship with Nike, having stated that endorsing Kaepernick was a bad business move. Lidke later went on to say that kneeling was a dishonor to the country.

“Nike is probably going to regret this … we have seen a significant drop in their stock. They can add in all the props they want as long as they realize any backlash or negative press as a result is totally on them,” Lidke stated.

Some Americans that side with the students that find the ad distasteful, have taken the situation further. A Louisiana mayor ordered a boycott of Nike gear after the publication of the advertisement, and Georgia college banned Nike from its school store. However, in the midst of the clear anger at the campaign, Nike has closed at a record breaking, all-time high in sales after the release of the ad, according to a report published by CNN.

“It’s a brilliant marketing point by Nike. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s definitely Nike’s name out there, so I don’t think that Nike is doing this in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, I think they’re doing it because they’re trying to make money,” Aister had stated, deeming the choice as solely strategical.


Power of the NFL: How free is our speech?

Colin Kaepernick expressed how putting everything on the line for what he believed in, was necessary, as he was that passionate about the need for change—hence the caption within his ad for Nike.

Kaepernick received just that from his decisions. According to CBSS Sports, as of his season in 2016, he has not been able to so much as workout with an NFL team, never mind playing for the 49ers. The First Amendment “prohibits any law limiting freedom with respect to religion, expression, peaceful assembly.” The kneeling that Kaepernick used to apply this right was not accepted by the football league.

“The NFL should be able to do that. Those owners should be able to not hire him if they don’t want [to],” Van Landeghem added.

A couple students tend to disagree with this right. Sophomore football player George Alba did not agree with Kaepernick kneeling, however he did not think that it should be held against him either.  

“I don’t think there should be rules in place for the NFL players who do [kneel]…it’s their freedom to do it,” Alba said. “We don’t force anybody to do anything in the country because it’s the USA … it’s [your] choice if you’d like to respect the flag or not respect it.”  

Pearson had a similar statement, that Kaepernick should not have to compromise his job and income due to kneeling during the anthem.

Leonard, however, said that the NFL had every right to kick Kaepernick off the team for what he had done.

Whether the 49ers decision in firing Kaepernick seemed justified or not, it took a major hit to the NFL’s ratings, according to Sporting News. Consequently, the advertisement companies that buy commercial time from the NFL, are not meeting the rating promised to them, causing the football company to give free commercial time, which means losing money.

Bradshaw made the point that Kaepernick had an influence on the decline of ratings since they did kick him out, which was a harsh decision that could be seen by viewers and supporters.

Lidke, however, did not believe that their decisions and policies were not harsh at all, and should be enforced with Kaepernick’s situation.

“They can make whatever policies they wish as to how their player should conduct themselves. In this instance, they should,” Lidke said. “They should intervene especially due to the fact that they have service men and women that are out there presenting the flag when he kneels, and that is disrespectful to them.” 

Lidke explained that it was perfectly fine for companies to set rules on how their employees should conduct themselves, having stated that the First Amendment rights only protect one from the government, as they should.

How American.



Zion Curry, Jayna Dias, and Alexandra McPhee are staff writers for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl