At the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, American track stars John Carlos and Tommie Smith wore black gloves, raised fists in the air and went shoeless to protest for civil rights and symbolize black poverty. For their actions, they were kicked out of the Olympic village. They were ostracized from the track community and by much of America. There were as many people who considered them villains as there were who considered them heroes.
Over the years, this country and its view of that day in Mexico City has changed. In 2016, the two were invited to speak at Oklahoma Christian University. Consider that: deep in the Bible Belt, the two were welcomed with open arms. Their actions were seen as courageous, inspiring, selfless. They were celebrated.
Wonder if someday all of America will look at Colin Kaepernick the same way.
Nike is banking on that.
Earlier this week, Nike made Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback, part of its 30th anniversary "Just Do It'' campaign.
You know Kaepernick, the lightning rod who started a national movement and fervent debate by first sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to the racial inequality in this country.
Immediately following Nike's announcement, two sides of this country split even further and dug in their heels.
On one side: those who support Kaepernick's right to peacefully protest and respect that he has lost his football career to stand up for what he believes.
The other side: those who think Kaepernick is a spoiled and privileged athlete disrespecting the military and the flag.
Both sides have passionately stated their cases and it's unlikely they will ever get the other to agree.
Which is why it was somewhat surprising to see Nike go out on a limb by showing its support for Kaepernick. By doing so, Nike risks alienating half of its customers. Already, we've seen a backlash of people burning their Nike apparel and swearing to never buy another pair of Nike shoes again. President Trump, who has been highly critical of NFL players who kneel for the anthem, said Nike was "sending a terrible message.''
Yet it is clear that Nike isn't thinking about those who have been its customers for the past 20 years, but who its customers will be for the next 20 and beyond. By embracing Kaepernick, Nike believes that, ultimately, it will be on the right side of history, that in 20 years, we will look at Kaepernick the same way we look at Carlos, Smith and even Muhammad Ali.
Nike could have taken the easy way out. Kaepernick isn't even playing right now. If Nike had dropped Kaepernick, no one would have thought anything of it, not even Kaepernick. Nike could have rolled along, selling its gear to liberals and conservatives, blue states and red, young and old, black and white.
But it decided to side with Kaepernick in this important debate, even though millions of potential customers and even the President of the United States is on the other side.
What Nike gets, however, is that sometimes standing up for principles is more important than laying down for profits.
Now, let me stop here for just a second and say that I'm not so naive to think Nike doesn't care at all about money. You could even argue that this decision is giving the company loads of free advertising and could pay off financially.
In the end, this could all be a really smart business decision.
But there is certainly risk and it's absolutely the right thing to do regardless of that risk.
Is Kaepernick the perfect spokesman? No. He has had missteps along the way. But his missteps should not overshadow his ultimate point. And how can one argue that his ultimate point — that there is a racial imbalance and injustice in this country — is not true?
I believe that history will be kind to Kaepernick. I believe that in 20 years, we will remember what Kaepernick was protesting instead of how he protested. And, ultimately, that's what matters. That's all that matters.
Kaepernick isn't protesting against the flag. He isn't protesting against the military. He and others have plainly said that. This has nothing to do with the flag or the military. Why so many don't get that and yet insist that's what it is about continues to be the real problem in this divide.
Kaepernick and others are standing up for equal rights. They want all men and women from all races to be treated equally and they know that until that happens this country has no chance at ever being truly great.
Nike happens to agree with that.
If that bothers you to the point that you want to boycott Nike, go ahead. That form of peaceful protest is certainly your right as an American.
But it would appear that Nike sees a future when Kaepernick and what he stands for is to be respected and celebrated.
Just like John Carlos and Tommie Smith.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones