Rory nails his colours firmly to Nike's mast
Rory McIlroy won’t play for Ireland in the 2016 Olympics – and he won’t play for Britain. Even if he appears under either of those flags, he will be playing for Team Nike. His emblem from now on will be, not the red hand of Ulster or the union flag or the green, white and orange, but the Swoosh.
And who can blame him? There’s the money, of course, and very nice it is too. But even if you leave aside the small matter of $200 million, there’s the relief. If you’re young and Irish and golden and supremely gifted and preternaturally self-assured, why would you not want to escape from Ireland into Nikeland?
Another Irish, golden, supremely gifted and preternaturally self-assured young man, James Joyce, said a century ago that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”.
Rory has awoken from the nightmare of history, not just into an Aladdin’s cave of riches, but into the plush temperature-controlled chamber of a new kind of global identity, one that has been airbrushed, sanitised and defanged.
Who wouldn’t prefer that to the bitter, nihilistic identity parade being staged nightly on the streets of east Belfast or the psychotic savagery of paleorepublican zealotry? These dead-end spasms reek only of failure and death.
If this is what “identity” means, why would anyone with a choice want to be so identified? And yet, how much of a choice is this for people who are not global superstars? A corporate brand supposedly represents freedom, aspiration, individuality, but behind the brand lies a construct no more individualistic than the old identities.
Northern Ireland has 692,000 people at work; Nike employs 1.08 million (most of them, of course, Asian women who are invisible to those of us who consume the products they make). Nike’s annual sales of $18 billion are more than half of Northern Ireland’s entire annual output.
Nikeland has its own flag, its own policies (corporate mission statements) and its own national interests.
Those massive sales are built on the manufacturing of a substitute identity, a sense of belonging to take the place of all the things that people used to be attached to: countries, nations, classes, tribes, unions, churches.
Mega-marketing infuses this new identity with a sense of rational purpose (“If you have a body you are an athlete”) but it is no more rational than the flag protests in Belfast. It is entirely based on superstition. Nike’s calculation in paying Rory so much money is that millions of people will think: if I wear what Rory wears and use the clubs he uses, I’ll be able to play golf a bit like him.