Nike has made a name for itself in the world of social justice. It has partnered with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, released a video telling us “For once, don’t do it,” and has on its website a statement showing “How we Stand Up for Equality.” Regardless of whether or not you support Kaepernick or believe there is a problem with racism in this country, Nike’s actions, on the surface, show that they care about social justice and that they believe they should actively fight racism.
Who disagrees with that?
According to Ana Swanson at the New York Times, Nike, along with other mega corporations such as Coca-Cola and Apple, have lobbied against a bill proposed in Congress that would ban imports from the Xianjing region of China, where over a million Uyghur Muslims, an ethnic minority, are being put in forced labor and reeducation camps. Their treatment has been described as genocide or a modern day Jim Crow. So Nike, after telling us all that they are for justice and equality, are actively trying to make sure that they can continue to profit off race-based discrimination and slavery.
In his Satires, the Roman poet Juvenal gives us this quote:
“… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.”
In Juvenal’s time, Bread and Circuses referred to the lack of the population’s participation in the government. By 100 CE., Rome had abandoned the Republican values held by Cato and gone to absolute rule by the emperor. The phrase has since evolved to mean a government’s appeasement of its populace during hard times: Just give the people food and entertainment and they will ignore or forget the problems surrounding them.
Nowadays, it isn’t the government that is placating us with superficial distractions, but megacorporations. Nike is making a large show to let us know they are working on systemic racism and racial injustice, yet they are directly profiting from it (both from products made with slave labor and their Kaepernick partnership that made them $6B).
Other corporations mentioned in the Times report, such as Coca-Cola and Apple, spent a good part of the past summer telling you they care about racial justice in both ads (or lack thereof) and large donations. But what do those actions mean if they only care about racial injustice when it happens in the United States? After all, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Furthermore, what do those actions mean if these companies are only acting in response to widespread calls for racial justice from the people who buy their products? Nothing, really. These companies only acted to appease the masses so they could sell more.
The biggest provider of these Ethically Sourced Bread and Circuses is the National Basketball Association. The NBA was at the forefront of the social justice movement long before this summer, since the 2014 police killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. In protest, players wore shirts while warming up that read “I Can’t Breathe” and “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” the last words of Garner and what many believed to have been Brown’s final words and actions (the Department of Justice has refuted the claim that Brown put his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” They concluded the police officer was acting in self defense).
Since then, the NBA has made itself the public face of promoting social justice in sports, with their soapbox standing hitting its peak in this past summer’s “NBA Bubble”. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA, in order to complete its season, moved the teams that were still competing for a NBA championship into a bubble in Orlando. In the bubble, the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER” was painted on the court alongside the NBA logo, and players were allowed to choose one of 29 “approved” social justice messages to put on the back of their jersey in lieu of their names. This public display of allyship and support, much like Nike’s, looks admirable on the surface. However, this came less within a year of the Daryl Morey fiasco, when the then-General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted out an image with the words “Fight for Freedom, Stand With Hong Kong,” referencing the Pro-Democracy protests occurring in Hong Kong. The NBA immediately distanced itself from Morey, calling his tweet “regrettable,” and Lebron James, arguably the most well-known athlete in the world, condemned Morey, saying he was not “educated on the situation.” The Chinese Commuist Party, which the NBA profits off a partnership with, stopped broadcasting NBA games on state run media, and a few days later cut all ties with the league, costing the NBA $200 million.
And yet the NBA had the audacity to allow players to have the phrase “Vote” on the backs of their jerseys less than a year later, while still profiting off people who cannot do so.
The reason companies such as Nike and the NBA are making it known they care about racial justice is because, well, they don’t. The business of social justice is a very profitable one, and these companies know that making a public showing of “Trust Us, We Care” is a great way to make money off people who desperately want everyone to care. Don’t forget; the social responsibility of business is to increase profits. Anything done otherwise is advertising and appeasement: our modern day, corporate, ethically-sourced bread and circuses.