Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn did the right thing Wednesday, even if he did it for the wrong reasons.
Gone is the week-old, ill-advised order banning booster clubs for teams that use city playgrounds from purchasing Nike equipment. Zahn hadn’t explained why he singled out one particular supplier, but he didn’t need to. His memo came after Nike debuted an ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who famously refused to stand during the national anthem to draw attention to police misconduct against African-Americans.
Yet in the mayor’s effort to duck the damage his order set off, Zahn showed that he still didn’t get what all the fuss was about.
Emerging from behind closed doors and speaking before a Navy jet on display at Kenner’s Veterans Park, Zahn cast the controversy as an unfortunate side-effect of his extreme patriotism. He said he’s passionate in his love of country and support for men and women in uniform. That’s great, but also irrelevant to the discussion at hand, except to the extent that the troops he backs fight for a way of life that includes the right to speak freely, even if some people might take offense.
By the way, Kaepernick and others who’ve followed have been extremely clear in explaining what they’re speaking about. They’re not rejecting the country’s ideals, but calling on it to live up to them. That’s why they’ve drawn so much support, why the world crashed in on Zahn, and frankly, why Nike's choice to feature Kaepernick was a good business decision in the first place. You don’t have to like the company’s choice to at least be honest about the circumstances surrounding it.
Zahn also said he never meant to wade into something divisive. But the issues surrounding the anthem protests have been nothing but, starting from President Donald Trump’s trashing of the athletes in question.
Zahn’s order divided him from the head of the region’s big city, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, with whom he’d sought to form a strong regional partnership. Cantrell and the entire New Orleans City Council denounced the policy, and one council member, Jay Banks, even brought his whole staff to Monday night’s protest in Nike gear (maybe Zahn could claim a commission).
Most importantly, it divided his own diverse constituency. Kenner isn’t some homogenous outpost, but a major suburb in which a quarter of the population is African-American and 23 percent Latino. The issues raised by Kaepernick and company are real to many of the kids who play on city playgrounds, or may well be as they get older. His own politics aside, Zahn’s job is to represent them as much as any other Kenner residents.
Nor did Zahn seem to grasp that his first obligation is to act in accordance with the law. Doubts immediately arose over whether he could legally dictate purchases made by private organizations that receive city money but also raise their own. And indeed, in rescinding the order, he cited in part the advice of his city attorney. Shouldn’t he have cleared the idea first?
That he apparently didn’t points to the reality behind the order, that Zahn either cares so deeply about the issue that he couldn’t help himself or was trying to pander to a certain subset of political supporters.
All that said, the First Amendment applies to Zahn too. He’s got every right to his personal opinion and to his outrage, even if it seems as if someone with the courage of his convictions wouldn’t have disappeared for days after the controversy blew up. If he really can’t countenance the thought of Nike gear being used on the playgrounds of the city he leads, he has the option of simply walking away and letting someone else be mayor.
As someone once said: Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything, you know?