When Nike announced Sunday that Colin Kaepernick -- the former San Francisco 49ers player who initiated a peaceful protest for racial justice and against police brutality during the national anthem and ignited a firestorm of controversy -- was the new face of its “Just Do It” ad campaign, conservatives initiated a vicious backlash against the company. Social media lit up with videos of disgruntled customers burning their sneakers and cutting the company’s iconic swoosh logo out of their shorts and socks.
But another motif quickly began to emerge out of the backlash against Nike.
The company’s ad features a close-up shot of Kaepernick in black and white, with the slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” (Kaepernick’s protest, which spread to other players in the NFL, is widely believed to have led to his exclusion from NFL rosters after the 2016 season; he is suing over alleged collusion between team owners to prevent him from being signed.) Overnight, conservatives began to use the slogan to rebuke Kaepernick -- by comparing him to Pat Tillman, a former NFL player who quit the league to enlist in the U.S. Army after 9/11 and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004.
Tweets lauding Tillman at Kaepernick’s expense received thousands of likes and were shared by conservative provocateurs including TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk, Fox News’ Stephen Miller, and the conservative YouTuber who goes by keemstar.
Similar tweets were issued by Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA):
Similar memes on Facebook garnered tens of thousands of shares:
Fox News also participated in the Kaepernick-Tillman comparison, airing commentary on the subject on its live-streaming “Fox News Update” program on Facebook:
The NFL protests have become a hot-button issue in the midterms, most recently surfacing in dueling videos from the campaigns of Democratic nominee for Texas Senate seat Beto O’Rourke and his opponent Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). The comparison between Tillman and Kaepernick fits into a broader conservative pattern of positioning peaceful civilian protest as a rebuke to the sacrifice of soldiers and veterans.
But it also fundamentally misrepresents Pat Tillman.
Tillman left professional sports to enlist in the military in 2002. By 2003, after participating in the invasion of Iraq, according to family members and friends, Tillman had become a critic of the war and of President George W. Bush. According to former comrades-in-arms, he described the war in Iraq as “fucking illegal.” He planned to meet with anti-war author Noam Chomsky upon his return in 2004 -- but never made it, gunned down by friendly fire. The fact that Tillman had been killed by others in his platoon was not revealed to his family until five weeks after his funeral. The circumstances of his death -- and an elaborate cover-up involving changing stories, burned body armor, and medical examiner’s reports that conflicted with soldiers’ testimony -- was the subject of lengthy inquiry by Congress.
In addition, Tillman’s family has directly asked the public not to politicize Pat’s death.
When President Donald Trump shared a tweet directed against the protesting NFL players that featured Tillman’s name and face, Tillman’s widow, Marie, released a statement to CNN asking that her husband’s service not be “politicized in a way that divides us.”
Defying the wishes of Tillman’s widow to score points against a Nike ad campaign seems, however, to not be beneath the dignity of right-wing commentators.