Mr. Kaepernick’s Sacrifice: Redux

Dom Rottman

23 July 2019

On July 1st of this year, Nike reportedly pulled a shoe sporting the “Betsy Ross flag” per the advice of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who claimed the flag is considered offensive by some due to its connection to slavery and its use by white nationalist groups. To my extreme lack of surprise, the move received considerable backlash.

Last autumn, I responded to Colin Kaepernick’s collaboration with Nike in an advertisement campaign. My main concern was, to put it briefly, that cooperating with a corporation, an entity who couldn’t care less about the suffering of people of color in America’s inner cities or their sweatshops acRoss the Pacific, to spread a message of social justice defangs and compromises that message or cause.

Admittedly, telling Nike to renege on a shoe is less problematic than participating in an ad campaign which co-opts social justice for profit rather than actually furthering justice. In fact, it’s almost trivial–on face value. However, a deeper analysis of the Betsy Ross flag as myth raises the stakes higher than what they initially appear to be. Thus, I’m inclined to say a few words about the matter.

First of all, Kaepernick didn’t pull his claims out of his ass. In 2016 a branch of the NAACP cited the flag as a hate symbol in 2016. I would venture to guess, however, that most Americans don’t consider the flag as a hate symbol, and do not necessarily think of slavery when they see it. It should be no surprise, then, that Kaepernick received such backlash and was condemned as unpatriotic, especially around the 4th of July holiday, in a time where some people defend the flying of the Confederate flag, which is much more evocative of slavery, as a piece of history. The association of the Betsy Ross flag with slavery and/or white nationalism is a competing myth with the association of the Betsy Ross flag with, say, the 13 colonies, or the formation of the United States. Most people buy into the latter but not the former. However, when white nationalist groups begin to use the flag as a symbol for their own cause, the myth evolves into both one of hate and the formation of the United States. Such a “mythic synthesis” would be dangerous, perhaps more dangerous than a sort of “mythic replacement,” such as where the swastika became a hate symbol after World War II, rather than a Hindu symbol of luck.

The point of this jargon, of analyzing the Betsy Ross flag as myth, is to show that symbols and images are much more important and complicated then what they seem to be. This is not necessarily to defend Kaepernick’s interpretation of the Betsy Ross flag, but to attempt to see why he opened his mouth at all about such a seemingly trivial matter. That said, it’s still an open question as to whether or not speaking out on this was actually a good idea in the first place. On one hand, restricting the flag to where it belongs, in history books and museums as a relic of the past, is a move which could be in fact considered patriotic, protecting it from mythic synthesis. On the other hand, the mere recognition of the myth of slavery and white nationalism with the Betsy Ross flag, even in condemnation, could lead to its unfortunate perpetuation.

Even if Kaepernick was better off keeping his mouth shut, his opponents were just as well better off remaining quiet, rather than responding in kind with just as much if not more effort in backlash, especially if Kaepernick’s critics actually wanted to stick it to Nike. In the week recalling the shoes, Nike’s stock rose by two points. Surely this controversy cannot be ruled out as a factor–there is no bad press, after all. What’s more, Kaepernick did not comment in time to prevent the shoes from appearing in the wild entirely. Pairs of the shoes that have been manufactured and shipped but not recalled are being resold for as much as $2500, surplus value manifested and extracted from the thin air of controversy.

Once again, Nike is the unparalleled number one beneficiary of this fiasco. The vampiric hucksters, those who managed to get their hands on a pair of shoes turned-collector’s item after it was deemed to be marked with a hate symbol, come in second for being able to realize the value of nothing in thousands of dollars. Kaepernick, in preventing an old flag that is sometimes but quite infrequently used as a hate symbol from appearing on a shoe–which would be bought by few and would likely offend fewer still–comes in a distant third, with an ambiguous and possibly pyrrhic moral victory.