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.

Like all these endorsement deals, it relies on a return to the pre-modern belief in sympathetic magic.

It is not even true that Nikeland’s identity is at least peaceful. Nikeland has riots, just like east Belfast. In the London riots of 2011, Footlocker and JD Sports were primary targets.

In the run-up to Christmas 2011, police were called to shopping malls in Indiana, Florida, Texas and Virginia after hysterical crowds broke down doors to get at the new Air Jordan 11 Retro Concord shoes. In Atlanta, police had to rescue two toddlers locked in a car by their mother who had abandoned them while she tried to get her hands on a pair.

In February, violent disorder marked the launch of the exclusive Nike Foamposite Galaxy basketball shoes (a mere $220 a pair) with glow-in-the dark soles and pink and purple swirls.

According to ABC news, “an angry mob raged into the early morning after a Footlocker at the Florida Mall in Orlando cancelled the midnight, first-come first- serve release of 200 pairs of the shoe due to ‘safety concerns’. Police clad in riot gear and sporting batons and tear gas lined up around the store, hoping to disperse the angry mob of sneaker aficionados.”

An angry mob of sneaker aficionados or an angry mob of loyalist flag worshippers? Sneakerheads or Chuckyheads? These are extremes, of course, but extremes that define the options for those in search of an identity in the 21st century.

On the one side, there is an increasingly sour and nihilistic brand of ethnic and/or sectarian belonging, one that may seem anachronistic in the context of Northern Ireland but that is actually on the rise across Europe. On the other, there is the loving embrace of a bland, corporatised, airless, ahistoric branding in which what you wear is who you are.

There are, of course, other possibilities for collective identity: a sense of democratic power, an idea of mutual interdependence, an attachment to trusted public institutions, nation states that act as effective buffers between their citizens and a feral, anarchic brand of capitalism. But these are the very things that are under relentless attack in the European response to the current crisis.

The social democracies that built relatively stable public identities after the catastrophes of fascism and war are being dismantled, along with their collective ideals of equality and mutual responsibility. Nike can step in to sell us Union Jack and Tricolour Retro Concord limited- edition shoes, but it won’t fill the gap for long.

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