Stand Up, Speak Out: A Story of Pots and Kettles

In recent weeks we have been subjected to the sights and sounds of sportswear advertisements imploring us to stand up and fight racism in football. The message is clear – “Stand Up. Speak Out. Tick.”

It would be foolish to assert that there exists in British society today a strong – or even lukewarm – anti-corporatist sentiment. What Nike’s advertising men have failed to grasp, however, is that this is the result of passiveness, not wanton stupidity. People by and large do not like being talked down to, and this is why the sight of the Nike “anti-racism” advertisements have been met with mixed reactions from players and fans alike.

We live in an age where the official title of every major sporting event, television show or radio promotion has as part of its title the name of some other entity that bears absolutely no relevance to the said event, show or promotion. This is what we today call “sponsorship”, the reining in of popular culture by bankers or purveyors of potato crisps. This practice is disagreeable enough, but until now it has at least tended to pander to people’s stylistic or materialistic choices – it has not purported to link consumer choices with moral and ethical choices. This latest campaign has taken things a step further.

In this regard, Nike would be better advised to compare the respective working conditions of its white-collar (predominantly white) employees in the West with those of its non-white sweatshop workers. The existence of sweatshop exploitation is common knowledge in the West (whether or not people care is another issue, of course) and it is in this particular context that the corporation’s claim to “identify” with anti-racism has been met with annoyance by even the most apolitical characters.

I was therefore pleased to hear Manchester United’s Gary Neville himself speaking out against the potential “cheapening” of the anti-racism cause. His sentiments were echoed a few days later by the Cameroon and Barcelona striker Samuel Eto’o. Thierry Henry has argued that he telephoned Nike to ask for their help in the fight against racism, because he “needed to do something.” That Mr Henry felt he needed turn to a corporation as a first port of call is itself reflective of these times – Henry, himself perhaps awestruck by his part-time colleagues at Nike, clearly feels they are a source of power that can be harnessed for good. The result, however, constituted an honest mistake on his part – the campaign is inappropriate at its best, manifestly disagreeable taken at its worst. Nor would anyone but a minority like to see a situation emerge where pluralism and racial integration are equated with the cynical gimmicks of opportunists.

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