Cook: Colin Kaepernick and the Marlboro Man

Cook: Colin Kaepernick and the Marlboro Man

September 16th, 2018 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

A large billboard showing Colin Kaepernick stands on top of the building housing the Nike store at Union Square Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, in San Francisco.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

State Senator Bo Watson, R-Hixson, recently asked the Tennessee General Assembly's budget analysis office for a report detailing the extent of contracts between Nike and University of Tennessee schools.

Watson's request came just days after Nike released its new ad campaign about sacrifice and conscience, featuring Colin Kaepernick, the ex-NFL star who knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence against African Americans.

Presumably, this is Watson's attempt at aligning morals and ethics with state contracts, as if to say that Tennessee won't support a corporation that supports Kaepernick's protest. (Why does white America continue to believe it can dictate black protest?)

It also seems a tad like opportune political theater, sort of low-hanging fruit for the Watson campaign to grab during election season.

Yes, it's good to align our money with our values.

But if Watson is truly concerned about that, perhaps he should look closer to home.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse /Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System (TCRS) is our state's pension plan. Managed by big-name investors and consultants near and far, the portfolio — overseen by TCRS and, by extension, the General Assembly — contains the funds that pay pensions and retirement benefits, as well as disability payments, for state employees.

Including state politicians.

Like Watson.

Established in 1972, the TCRS makes its money in many of the normal Wall Street ways: funds, bonds, stocks and so on.

According to its most recent 2017 report, the TCRS portfolio saw a nearly 9 percent gain over the last five years. Viewed as one of the best-funded public pensions in the U.S., it's worth about $47 billion.

In its 2017 report, the TCRS lists its top stock holdings.

One of the biggest?

Philip Morris International.

The largest tobacco company in the U.S. and the second largest on earth.

"Worldwide, tobacco use causes nearly 6 million deaths per year, and current trends show that tobacco use will cause more than 8 million deaths annually by 2030," reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The TCRS portfolio owns roughly 1.4 million shares in Philip Morris worth nearly $168 million.

Tennessee is making money by investing in the global sale of tobacco and the spread of cancer.

Tennessee is making money off of the Marlboro Man.

And Watson is concerned about a Nike ad?

TCRS's portfolio also includes Exxon Mobil Corp., one of the world's largest fossil fuel companies, that has been accused of being deceitfully hostile to climate change science and solutions.

"A new investigation shows the oil company understood the science before it became a public issue and spent millions to promote misinformation," reports a Scientific American headline.

"ExxonMobil takes the gold in deceitful advertising," HuffingtonPost claims.

The TCRS portfolio owns 2 million shares in Exxon Mobil worth nearly $166 million.

Tennessee is making money by investing in the global sale of fossil fuels that are damaging our planet.

And Watson is upset over a Nike ad?

TCRS also owns some 1.8 million shares worth $275 million in Facebook Inc., the social media behemoth that's violated privacy and data ethics.

In June, one European bank divested Facebook from its $370 billion asset management fund. Bloomberg News reported that Sasja Beslik, the investor who oversees the fund, said that not "a single serious sustainable fund in the world" should have Facebook as part of its portfolio.

Here are the rest of TCRS's top stock holdings:

* Apple Inc. — 3.8 million shares worth $553 million.

* Alphabet Inc. — 424,000 shares worth $390 million.

* Microsoft Corp. — 4.3 million shares worth $297 million.

* Amazon Inc. — 270,000 shares worth $261 million.

* JP Morgan Chase — 2.7 million shares worth $251 million.

* Johnson + Johnson — 1.6 million shares worth $218 million.

* Bank of America Corp. — 7.2 million shares worth $175 million.

Of course, stocks come and go; perhaps when the 2018 TCRS report is released, the top stock holdings won't be so cancerous.

And Watson, co-chairman of a legislative committee with TCRS oversight, could thankfully play a large role in such an aligning of state ethics with state money.

Clearly, he's interested in that.

"Believe in something," Kaepernick says in the Nike ad.

He's not talking about the Marlboro Man.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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