Nike stole the attention of a nation on Monday, by debuting a 30th-anniversary campaign starring former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and original anthem protester Colin Kaepernick.
The announcement heralded him as a hero for subsisting off a suspected eight-digit endorsement deal with one of the world’s largest sporting goods companies.
Kaepernick has made a name for himself protesting what he claims to be systematic injustice by law enforcement against people of color in the United States. The outrage surrounding his endorsement stems largely from his refusal to stand for America’s flag and national anthem at NFL games, as a symbolic gesture that the country is not living out the values the flag is supposed to represent.
This outrage is misplaced because it ignores the reality of Kaepernick’s political ideology, one he revealed rather shamelessly by wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with mass murderer Fidel Castro’s face on it to a press conference in Miami, Florida, home to the largest community of Castro’s victims in the country. Kaepernick refused to disown Castro, instead doubling down on his praise of the dictator when confronted by a journalist member of the Cuban exile community.
In endorsing the rule of Fidel Castro, Kaepernick stood in defense of police brutality, systematic racism against people of color, and the torture and murder of political dissidents, all the ills that he repeatedly claims so urgently tarnish America. In this context, refusing to stand for America’s flag becomes a rejection of the values that Kaepernick claims to represent – and now Nike has rejected those values, too.
Kaepernick’s support for the torture and abuse of Afro-Cubans, who particularly suffer under the Castro regime, has sadly formed little part of the discussion of his return to the spotlight through Nike. Like much of Cuba’s history after 1959, the American left would simply rather forget. For those who have, a refresher: Kaepernick was in Miami in November 2016 for a match against the Miami Dolphins. He wore this shirt:
The photos show Malcolm X meeting Fidel Castro and reads, “like minds think alike.” Miami’s journalists booed Kaepernick, refusing to let him leave the conference without answering for his endorsement of a dictator who turned Latin America’s wealthiest country into an impoverished backwater while amassing a $900 million fortune.
“I’m not talking about Fidel Castro and his oppression. I’m talking about Malcolm X and what he’s done for people,” Kaepernick initially replied. He later tried to clear u his remarks by saying that he was not endorsing Castro, but “One thing that Fidel Castro did do is they have the highest literacy rate because they invest more in their education system than they do in their prison system.”
Pressed on the Castro policy of separating families – parents to labor camps, children to indoctrination classes, dissidents to torture chambers masked as “psychiatric” facilities – Kaepernick replied, “we do break up families here, that’s what mass incarceration is.”
Not that it mattered in the greater political context, but the Dolphins swept that game against Kaepernick, and Cuban linebacker Kiko Alonso told reporters he played harder that day specifically out of anguish at Kaepernick’s comments. Fidel Castro died that week.
Amid the anguish, the Cuban-American community reacted not with anger or disrespect, but disillusion at Kaepernick. Alonso himself said only that Kaepernick was “ignorant” and immature. “He doesn’t know about the suffering the Cuban people have had. He doesn’t have a clue,” he lamented.
Dan Le Batard, an ESPN host and Miami sports analyst who has become a prominent voice for the Cuban exile community, did not excuse Kaepernick either, but instead attempted to articulate the pain that Kaepernick caused:
Colin Kaepernick is not unlike much of America in not understanding what is happening in Cuba. What inflicts Miami Cubans more than anything right now is loneliness, feeling not understood as the prime minister of Canada and a bunch of other people are sitting here on the eulogy of Fidel Castro, and they’re feeling the need to celebrate his life and his passing just because he died.
Kaepernick has still never apologized to the Cuban exile community for the unnecessary hurt he caused or made any public indication that he has since educated himself about the crimes of the Castro regime – which means Nike now owns Kaepernick’s endorsement of those crimes.
In making Kaepernick the face of the company, Nike is embracing a long list of human rights violations that begins – but certainly does not end – with police brutality, the use of electroshock torture on dissidents like Kaepernick, the internment of LGBT individuals in labor camps for elimination, the murder of U.S. citizens while conducting charity work, the drowning of children to prevent them from leaving the country and the systematic subjugation of Afro-Cubans through the use of arbitrary arrests, torture, and mob violence.
Nike has endorsed support for the weekly beatings, mob attacks, and torture of the Ladies in White, a coalition of Cuban mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of political prisoners whose sole act of dissent is to silently go to Catholic Mass holding photos of their imprisoned loved ones. The group is predominantly black, and the mobs who attack them in actos de repudio, or “acts of repudiation,” rarely let them forget it.
Nike has endorsed support for public beatings of Afro-Cubans like Daniel Llorente, beaten and forced into faux-psychiatric torture for waving the very flag Kaepernick refuses to stand for; Yasser Rivero Boni, beaten into blindness for defending the Ladies in White and protesting in front of ESPN cameras; and Guillermo Fariñas, who has conducted 24 hunger strikes against the regime.
At press time, the athleticwear corporation has yet to issue a statement specifically addressing Kaepernick’s comments. Outside of the exile community, it is hard to expect anybody in American mainstream media will demand an explanation. Yet this moment in Kaepernick’s career is the one in which he most distinctly articulated what he stands for, and is the one he should be most prominently judged on.