Trademarking a Movement: Colin Kaepernick, Nike, and the Commodification of Social Protests in the Sport Industry

Authors: Jennifer Titanski-Hooper*, Francis Marion University, Lindsey Banister, Francis Marion University
Topics: Political Geography, Cultural Geography, Ethnicity and Race
Keywords: sports, commodification, social movements, race
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/3/2019
Start / End Time: 4:30 PM / 6:10 PM
Room: Washington 2, Marriott, Exhibition Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


As a cultural industry, sports have the power to (re)shape economic and political relations and social discourse across space and scale. Interactions between players, fans, sponsors, and sporting organizations both reflect and contribute to debates in the public sphere. This paper examines these relationships as they have played out in the recent controversy between the NFL national anthem protests and Nike’s sponsorship of protest leader, Colin Kaepernick.

From 2016-2017, Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem to draw attention to the oppression of racialized bodies and police brutality. His actions galvanized a movement, drawing supporters on and off the field. Others boycotted the NFL, critiqued the movement for undermining the purpose of professional sports, and characterized it as anti-American. Kaepernick became a free agent, but he was never picked up by another team. In 2018, Nike released a controversial ad starring Kaepernick, with the tagline, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Subsequently, Nike’s stocks have significantly risen, and Kaepernick and his movement remain at the center of public discourse. This raises questions about the ability of athletes and corporations to act in solidarity with social movements when they also stand to financially profit. Since the ad's success, Kaepernick has even attempted to trademark his face for consumer products. These actions illuminate the vexed relationships between the cultural and economic roles of the sport industry. Working from interdisciplinary perspectives of feminist political geography and sports rhetoric, this paper analyzes how systems of power commodify bodies and social movements.

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