Anyone with a social media account saw the backlash this week against Nike’s decision to name Colin Kaepernick as the face of its new #JustDoIt campaign, but for one young black man working at a Nike call center, this week has been a much more frustrating experience.
As a pair of burning Nikes rode social media algorithms to near ubiquity, he fielded calls from some of the most ardent anti-kneeling activists, Trump supporters, and straight-up racists — all while being obligated to not talk back.
Nike call-center workers have a prewritten line about Lance Armstrong, Kanye West and a host of other people customers call in to complain about. But for Kaepernick, we’re told, there isn’t one yet. Just the usual “At Nike we’re deeply sorry that you feel this way. May we take down feedback?”
As you’ll see below, the line hasn’t worked to calm the callers. We caught up with the call center worker — who asked we leave his name, age and location out of the article to protect his job — to see what the reaction has been from those riled up enough to call the company, and what it’s like to be on the inside.
So, what has this week been like for you?
Bittersweet. A lot of us have more respect for our company than we have in the past. We feel a big swell of pride that we stood up for something meaningful. But we’ve been getting harassed like crazy.
Normally it’s like whatever, I’m getting paid for it. But this week hit home. With any job you’re going to have to deal with some abuse. Sometimes you can just go with it and apologize, but with this there was no reasoning with it. It felt like it was the proverbial klan’s mask: looking at someone and not knowing their identity, wanting to take off the mask, but you’re getting your ass whooped so you can’t.
Who has been the worst caller?
An older black lady — who reminds me of my mom because of how outspoken, witty and intelligent she [is] — was told by a caller that it doesn’t matter if “a few cops kill some niggers every once in a while because black teens shoot each other every day.”
She’s one of the many people that believe crying is weakness, but she busted out in tears and said, “My son wears a suit and a tie everyday, owns a business and drives a nice car. And still every Friday he’s laying on the ground with a gun against his head being humiliated for being black. They don’t care he’s a CEO, they don’t care he graduated from a good university, they see a thug and a menace.”
What about calls you personally fielded? Any stick out as particularly intense?
I had a white police officer call. He said, “I think he’s un-American, rude, disrespectful and I don’t understand why Nike would pick someone who hates America.” He said he goes out every day to work and protect people, and doesn’t know if [he’s] coming home that night.
The officer said Nike is disrespecting the troops and the cops and, “Can you imagine how excluded we feel? We stand for those that have been silenced.” And so he asked me to see things from his point view.
We’re normally supposed to say, “At Nike we’re deeply sorry that you feel this way. May we take down feedback?” But I told him our places in society limit our ability to see things from each other’s point of view. Because of what I’ve seen. I’m a black teenager who has been wronged by the police.
My mother was raped by a policeman in the Seventies, at 17 years old. My father, a black business owner, was forced out of his car and asked to recite the [serial] numbers on all his tools because he had a felony. My father came from a generation where pride and self esteem is something you bathe in and nothing could ever take my father’s pride, but that did. And they still didn’t understand.
How many callers have told you they are burning their sneakers?
A lot of people. They also tell me they are throwing them off overpasses. I say, “OK, great.”
What about donating?
Only one group of people called to say they were donating.
A group of republican moms told me they meet up to talk about local news and politics and because of this they have stopped all their support of Nike. They said, “We gathered up all our kids’ Nike stuff and we’re going to go donate it. All our kids play sports but will find another brand.”
I said “Wow, that’s really nice. That’s good. I’m happy for you.”
They basically said, “Fuck you, it’s not funny. We’re never going to give another cent, we’re going to talk to our brokers and withdraw our stock.”
What sort of things are the bulk of boycotters saying to you?
We get a lot of, “why does Nike hate the troops?” I mean, we offer military discounts and we make combat boots because the military issued ones suck.
Also a lot of names. We’ve been called “Kaeperniggers” “Collin Cottonpick” “Kaeperscum,” etc.
Has anyone talked back to a customer and been reprimanded?
A white coworker of mine hung up on a caller who dropped the N-bomb on him.
The call started off with the guy saying, “How could you guys pick someone like this? A deviant, a traitor, to represent your brand. I don’t understand that.” When my coworker said people have the right to protest the guy went on a long rant and that’s when he dropped the n-bomb.
Normally when that happens we’re allowed to say, “Hey, let’s keep the call professional or it’s going to lead to conclusion.” But he didn’t do that. He decided to press end.
All our calls are recorded for quality insurance and grading. His call was drawn, they went over his call and then said, “Hey, we understand why you hung up, we totally get it. But just as a reminder, don’t do that again. Give them a warning first, then give them the thank you for calling Nike.com spiel, and then conclude the call.” And he said, “Whatever, dude, you take 87 calls a day and tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing?”
How have your bosses been handling the situation?
They noticed things were getting out of hand, people were getting angry. So they bought us some food. Just as a reward for doing a good job, they thanked us for being able to take this in stride, said, “You guys are the best.” So we were like cool, bagels and coffee.
They bought Papa Johns.
Papa Johns?! (Editor’s note: Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter, a Trump supporter, recently stepped down after he criticized the NFL’s handling of player protests.)
Yeah I thought it was hilarious. I’ve been joking about that but no one is getting it. My coworker was like, did these motherfuckers really buy us Papa Johns?
You’re referring to a lot of these angry callers as Trump supporters. I’m curious if any happened to make Trump-specific remarks?
Yes. A lot of Trump supporters called. They say Kaepernick is a terrorist, communist, un-American, traitor, treasonous. Some of my black coworkers who speak with more ebonics had Trump supporters tell them to transfer the call because they “don’t trust” or “don’t talk to” black people.
One call I answered the guy told me Trump was making America great again. I said, ‘When was it great?’ He said World War II. I said, “Do you know about Japanese internment camps?”
Another asked me where my parents were from. Then he said I wasn’t black because I didn’t sound black. That guy in particular really got to me. He said you’re not black, you’re lying. I said, “Sir, I understand what Kaepernick is saying because I have faced the prejudice that he has faced. He speaks for people who are being silenced. It’s not about disrespecting the military or the police, it’s just about acknowledging that there is an issue and wanting to band together to fix it.”
And he said, “That’s not true, you don’t know what you’re talking about.” He said, “Racial prejudice doesn’t exist, you’ve never faced it, you’re a white guy like me.”
Did you receive any pro-Kaepernick callers?
Yes, a lot. Particularly white women. One said, “Well, let me tell you something son, on all my years on this Earth, I’ve never seen something more proud to be taking up space on this Earth. I don’t know much about the Nike, but I’m going to begin buying the products.” Then she hung up.