In September of 2018, global sportswear company Nike unveiled their ad campaign with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The ad’s wording was simple: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” The message played off of Kaepernick’s willingness to sacrifice his NFL career to stand up for a cause in which he believed, namely racial justice for black Americans. It took about one NFL season for Kaepernick to be out of a job as an NFL quarterback, and his backers say that his refusal to stand for the National Anthem prior to games is the reason for it.
However, if you understand a modicum of NFL football, you will know that at the time of Kaepernick’s “sacrifice,” he was no longer the same quarterback who had led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl. He was, at that point, an above-average second-string quarterback, the guy you put in when your starter gets injured. At the time of Kaepernick being unable to find work in the NFL, he was probably good enough to be a backup, but his racial justice antics likely turned teams off to signing him. In short, Kaepernick accelerated the conclusion of a soon-to-be-over career, and ended up with a Nike deal, a Netflix special, and invitations to some of society’s highest functions, such as award shows and the Met Gala. That was Colin Kaepernick’s sacrifice.
However, there are two athletes taking two different stands today, each with the potential to have serious consequences. The first is Brooklyn Nets superstar point guard Kyrie Irving who, despite a New York City mandate requiring a vaccination to get into buildings, has decided that he would rather not be allowed to play in any home games than get the vaccine.
Last month, Nets General Manager Sean Marks confirmed that Irving will still be paid for games he is forced to miss. So what exactly is Irving sacrificing? Firstly, he is sacrificing respect. It should be noted that Kyrie Irving has had his share of head-scratching statements and decisions throughout the years, so before anyone anoints him as their spokesperson, please do some research on the man. He may not be the guy you want to rest your political hopes upon. However, Irving will undoubtedly lose respect from his teammates, fans, and the press. He is at risk from all of these entities to be disgraced, mocked, and ridiculed for his decision - a decision that not only affects him, but the rest of his team as well.
The Nets are supposed to be a championship contender this year. They have assembled a super-team consisting of three of the league’s best players - of which Irving is one. His decision to go unvaccinated, in turn unable to play in half of his team’s games, jeopardizes those plans, and at the time of this writing, the Nets find themselves in 8th place in their conference instead of near the top. Also, unlike Kaepernick, Irving is 29 years old and in the prime of his career. But as you would expect, the media is pretty much silent when it comes to applauding Irving for his brave stance that costs so much. Deadspin called Irving the “Idiot of the Month.” The Daily News ran the headline: “Kyrie Irving is no Hero for Anti-Vaccine Stance.”
The second player who is standing for something much more significant is Boston Celtics center Enes Kanter. Kanter has made no bones about going after the Chinese government for their treatment of the Uyghur people. So what is Kanter risking? Well, in a word: money. And lots of it. The NBA has an extremely lucrative deal in China. How lucrative? According to USA Today, the NBA has a five-year deal with a Chinese digital partner valued at $1.5 billion, and a separate business arm of the NBA called NBA China is valued at $5 billion. A core part of the NBA’s business model is the Chinese market. Ever since Kanter began his vendetta against the Chinese government, Celtics games have been removed from viewing in China. There are even threats to remove all games if Kanter is not silenced. The USA Today article estimates that removal would cost the NBA approximately $500 million annually.
But Kanter has gone even further with his stance. He called on transcendent superstars Michael Jordan and LeBron James to speak out against China, the latter of whom has criticized former Houston Rockets General Manager and current Philadelphia 76ers President Daryl Morey for his outspokenness against China. (Incidentally, the 76ers are the only other team whose games are not shown in China.) Kanter also called out Nike owner Phil Knight for benefitting from his relationship with China. He has now called for a boycott against the upcoming winter Olympics, which are set to be held in Beijing.
What’s more is that Kanter is not exactly a superstar. He never really was. He’s a career journeyman role player who’s averaged around 15 minutes per game. He’s played on five teams in ten years, with stints on two of them twice. He’s the type of guy who can be easily cut from a team to appease a country that affords the league billions of dollars in revenue each year. And it’s not like Kanter has a deal with Nike waiting for him when he’s done. He’s burned that bridge. I don’t think he could even get a deal with a competitor. Kaepernick went to a Super Bowl, and there was a time he was thought to be an elite NFL quarterback. Kanter’s career highlight is winning the WWE 24/7 championship.
The other issue facing Kanter is that the oppressed group he’s fighting for are the Uyghur people, who aren’t exactly well-represented in America. I don’t think a shoe company is going to invest in someone when the appeal of that player would be to a core demographic with an population in America of about 9,000. And it’s not like they’ll be able to sell his shoe in China.
This isn’t the first time Kanter has spoken out about a brutal dictatorial regime. In 2018, ESPN reported that Kanter was speaking out against the Turkish government, a move which has caused “Nike and other companies [to shy] from signing him to endorsement deals.” How ironic. The company that runs an entire ad campaign about standing up for what you believe in despite the consequences refuses to sign a player because of the stance he’s taking.
Colin Kaepernick never sacrificed anything for his stance. He has made more money and achieved greater social success in his post-NFL days than at any point in his NFL career. Meanwhile, there are two current NBA stars who have risked so much with very little support and have received little-to-no positive coverage or backing for it. Nike should change their ad to: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. As long as we approve it.”
Izzo Zwiren is the host of The Jewish Living Podcast, where he and his guests delve into any and all areas of Orthodox Judaism.