When the package finally arrived, I knew immediately that I had been duped. I didn’t even have to open it. I’d bought a jersey from an eBay seller in Canada; the package was shipped from China. There correct jersey was in the package, a red Colin Kaepernick 49ers jersey in a size 44. It had the proper Nike tags at the hem and at the neck, all the right numbers and letters in all the right places. For all intents and purposes it was a $300 Nike Elite jersey, except for the fact that it wasn’t. Little things were wrong, from crooked stitches to fabric that looked right but didn’t feel right. At first I was angry. Then I reconsidered. Why did it even matter? Going against everything I thought I stood for, I wore it anyway.
There are two parts to this story, which overlap in several places and several ways. First there is Colin Kaepernick’s ongoing National Anthem protest, which has drawn worldwide attention and commentary from everyone from NFL commentators to Supreme Court justices. Then there is the matter of counterfeit goods, which have become nearly impossible to avoid on sites like eBay and Amazon. Even a glowing rating is no guarantee you’ll get what you’re paying for—the seller I bought my jersey from had perfect feedback.
Should I have been more cautious? Perhaps. The seller said they were selling off inventory from a closed sporting goods store, the price—around $50 shipped—was low. In hindsight, sure, dumb move. But the seller’s eBay reputation was impeccable, I didn’t want to give money directly to the NFL, and, ideally, I didn’t want to pay retail. In the end, I got what I paid for. But what was I paying for exactly?
Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a jersey was just a jersey. Did it have a team name and numbers? Close enough. A kid could wear it to school or a fan could wear it to a game no problem. Things changed in the ‘90s when “authentic” became a buzzword and it became important not only to have the correct team’s jersey, but the correct manufacturer’s jersey. Mitchell & Ness took it a step further with their exacting stitch-for-stitch replicas of classic jerseys. They weren’t the “real” jersey, of course, but they were the closest thing to it. Champion replica NBA jerseys were dominant for a while—they were just screenprinted nylon, but even they were “real” replica jerseys, properly authorized.
The common comparison to jerseys have been sneakers, which are also counterfeited heavily. But while sneakers are primarily a status symbol, a jersey should mean something more. Jerseys have become status symbols as well, as the Fabolous era of throwbacks disconnected jerseys (and hats, and teams in general) from fandom and turned them into just another aspirational clothing article. Whether it was real or not mattered more than whose name was on the back, or, for that matter, the front.
The name on the back is all that matters.
At stadiums and arenas, however, team pride overrode all other concerns. Bootleg apparel was (and is) sold in parking lots and worn with every bit as much pride as the genuine articles. Fans who wore the expensive “authentic” jerseys weren’t considered any more dedicated than those who wore something they got for free out of a t-shirt gun or for $20 out of someone’s trunk. The only divide was between those who were wearing the correct team’s apparel and those who weren’t. The streets were where authenticity mattered, where a well-made fake would get you more props than a cheaper, but properly authorized, replica.
Which brings us back to Kaepernick and his protests. Kaepernick’s actions during the National Anthem has made him a national figure, much larger than his play ever did even when he led the 49ers to the 2012 Super Bowl. And, in turn, wearing his jersey has become a statement in and of itself. Considering all of that, the question of whether said jersey is authentic or not becomes a very minor concern. The name on the back is all that matters.
The first time I wore the bootleg Kaepernick jersey on the streets of New York City, I received two comments. The first was from a well-dressed black man in his 20s or 30s who came up behind me at 57th and Park and said “I wore my jersey yesterday.” I apologetically launched into my story about getting got, but he didn’t care—he was already crossing the block. The next, from a black doorman at a hotel on 57th between Park and Lex, started with “nice jersey” as I approached and ended with “take a knee!” as I passed by. I just raised my hand in acknowledgement.
The best way to think of a Kaepernick jersey right now is, blasphemous as this will be to some, is as an American flag. Think about it. When you buy a flag, you’re not buying a specific brand. You’re not looking for a stitch-for-stitch replica of Betsy Ross’s original flag from 1776, or the one raised at Iwo Jima. Funny enough, you probably don’t even care where it’s made. You’re not buying an object as much as you’re buying a symbol, a red, white, and blue piece of cloth to put on display that stands for something larger. The rest doesn’t matter.
There are other considerations with a jersey, of course. The manufacturer paid for the rights to produce it, and a share of the profits go to both the league and the player. Buying a bootleg, knowingly or not, takes a cut out of that. For Kaepernick, whose last deal was for $126 million with $61 million of that guaranteed (although he likely won’t even make that much), one suspects the extra money doesn’t matter as much as spreading his message does. As for Nike and the NFL, they’ll probably survive somehow. In fact, not giving money to the NFL may be one of the best reasons to buy a bootleg jersey.
But having never bought a bootleg jersey before, knowingly or unknowingly, my fugazi Kaepernick jersey bothered me. As soon as I realized it was fake, I ordered a real Nike Limited one off the Nike site—so much for saving money. It arrived on Friday. The red was richer, the numbers unwrinkled. The nameplate looked as if it were sewn on by someone who was actually paying attention, the Swooshes on the sleeves embroidered rather than sewn on. It is, in every sense, a better product. And it’s official.
So why do I like it less?