We were surprised when Nike launched a major advertising campaign featuring former quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and even more surprised when it seemed to work. Nike’s sales went up, and the company attributed the increase in part to Kaepernick chic.
The tag line of Nike’s Kaepernick ad was, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Of course, Colin Kaepernick didn’t sacrifice everything by taking an anti-American stance–only, at most, the last couple of years of a mediocre career. He continues to be a multimillionaire, he is now lionized by millions instead of playing out the string as a second-string quarterback, and–to top it off–he has a lucrative shoe contract with Nike, even though he is not an active athlete.
Contrast Nike’s sweetheart deal with Kaepernick with its treatment of Enes Kanter. Kanter, a native of Turkey, is a very good NBA player. Currently with the Knicks, he has averaged around 14 points and 10 rebounds per game in recent years. Like Colin Kaepernick, Kanter has taken a political stand: he is an outspoken critic of Turkey’s Islamist President, Recep Erdogan. Kanter has aligned himself politically with Fethullah Gülen, an odd character by American standards. The most balanced account of Gulen I have seen is by Claire Berlinski in City Journal.
As a result of Kanter’s criticisms of President Erdogan, a warrant was issued for his arrest, and he has been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. Last year, Kanter fled from Indonesia, where he was teaching at a basketball camp during the off-season, after the Turkish government contacted Indonesian officials, perhaps with a view toward having him arrested. His Turkish passport has been revoked, which led to his being temporarily detained in Romania, so he is now a man without a country. And his father has been fired from his job as a university professor in Turkey, and has also been criminally charged.
So Enes Kanter has given up, if not everything, a great deal in consequence of standing up to a real tyrant. He should be a hero to Nike, right? Wrong.
New York Knicks center Enes Kanter said in an interview with Michael Pina of Vice Sports that Nike won’t sign him due to his public criticism of Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan and the ongoing backlash from those comments:
The emotional toll is obvious, but Kanter’s sacrifice is evident elsewhere. He can’t leave North America and hasn’t been able to secure any endorsement deals. Nike, the same company that championed Colin Kaepernick’s controversial remonstration by putting him on the frontlines of a recent ad campaign, now refuses to sign Kanter. “I talked to Nike and they said, ‘We want to give Enes a contract. We’re watching him. But if we give him a contract they will shut down every store in Turkey, so we cannot give him a contract,'” he says. “I’m an NBA player with no shoe deal. No endorsement deal. And I play in New York!”
Freedom of speech is cheap in America. For all the nonsense about Donald Trump being literally Hitler, no one suffers a penalty for attacking him–or for burning the flag, lying about police officers, and so on. On the contrary, in many social circles such speech is de rigueur. But there are places in the world, like Turkey, where claiming the right to speak freely can be fatal. Or, perhaps worse, can impact shoe sales. That is where Nike parts company with those who “believe in something,” and are even prepared to “sacrifice everything.”
A footnote: the NBA may be cowardly, too. Earlier this month, NBA Europe did an Instagram post that mysteriously omitted Kanter:
The NBA Europe Instagram page published a photo Monday “celebrating the best Turkish talent in the NBA.”
“Which player do you think has had the best season so far?” it asked.
The post consisted of the only three other Turkish players in the NBA: Milwaukee Bucks’ Ersan Ilyasova, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Cedi Osman and the Philadelphia 76ers’ Furkan Korkmaz.
Kanter, an eight-year veteran, has been in the league longer than second-year players Osman and Korkmaz. (Ilyasova is in his 11th season.)
He averages more minutes over his career and more points per game than all three players and is having the best season at 15 points and 11 rebounds per game. Kanter is also well known for being banished from Turkey and labeled a criminal terrorist stemming from his criticism of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
After Kanter complained on Twitter, the NBA deleted the offending Instagram post and apologized, explaining that a “factual error” was made by a third party. Maybe so, but it certainly is odd: Kanter is by far the best-known Turk playing in the NBA. Maybe Kanter is being paranoid. If so, I can’t blame him.