Nike presents Kaepernick as the face of a new ad campaign, defying critics

Nike’s decision in September 2018 to sign Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League (NFL) quarterback famous for triggering a wave of protests against singing the national anthem before games, ignited swift and polarized reaction. Despite condemnation from customers and President Donald Trump, the Oregon company announced days later that a commercial featuring Kaepernick would run during the NFL’s opening games of the 2018 season.

Key Players

Colin Kaepernick is an NFL football player; as of the start of the 2018 NFL season, he was not signed to any team. Initially drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL draft, Kaepernick played for the San Francisco 49ers until 2016.

In 2016, Kaepernick gained notoriety for kneeling during the national anthem, which has been played before sanctioned NFL football games since World War II. However, as Axios reports, NFL players only began standing during the anthem in 2009; before then, they would often remain in their locker rooms. While many saw Kaepernick’s, and subsequently other players’, protests as an affront against the flag and armed forces veterans, Kaepernick insisted that its main purpose was to raise awareness of racial and social inequality, including police brutality against minorities.

Since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in 2016, Kaepernick has had difficulty being hired by another NFL team, despite widespread recognition among football experts that he had sufficient talent to continue playing in the league. In 2017, Kaepernick filed a complaint against the NFL, accusing them of blackballing him from being hired. In August 2018, Kaepernick scored a victory in the case, when an arbitrator allowed his case against the league to proceed. The case was settled in February 2019 for, according to Market Watch, less than $10 million.

Further Details

Since Kaepernick first knelt during the anthem in 2016, the NFL, and other professional and amateur sports leagues, have seen an explosion of similar actions by players. The movement reached a boiling point in September 2017, when more than 200 NFL players participated in the anthem protests. This evoked strong reactions from fans, Trump, and companies like Papa John’s that decided to pull their ads from NFL game broadcasts.

However, several firms — including Nike, Under Armour, and Ford — voiced their support for athletes’ freedom of expression, according to Yahoo. “Nike supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society,” the company said in a September 2017 statement.

In May 2018, the NFL issued a rule requiring players either to stand for the national anthem, remain in the locker room, or suffer fines. However, several team owners refused to implement the rule, and eventually, the league agreed to suspend its enforcement, according to The New York Times.

On Sept. 3, 2018, Nike announced that it had signed a multiyear contract with Kaepernick, whereby he would become the face of Nike’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign. That day, it released the first of its television advertisements featuring him, which read on screen: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” A billboard version of the same ad went up in San Francisco.

Nike also planned to produce new Kaepernick merchandise, according to The Times, and said it would donate money to his “Know Your Rights” campaign.

Days after the initial announcement, Nike released a two-minute advertisement narrated by Kaepernick and featuring other prominent athletes like tennis star Serena Williams and basketball player LeBron James. It ran during the NFL’s first telecast of the 2018 regular football season, as well as during the U.S. Open tennis championship and college football games.


Kaepernick’s Nike campaign triggers controversy from all sides

Kaepernick’s new role with Nike sparked immediate outcry across the political spectrum. “Just Do It” and “Nike” quickly became trending topics on Twitter in the United States, according to The Times, and some individuals took to the social media site to declare their boycotts of Nike and showcase the destruction of their Nike products.

Trump, who had been critical of protests by NFL players, spoke out Sept. 5 against Nike’s decision. “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?” Trump tweeted. “As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”

On Sept. 6, 2018, The Kansas City Star reported that the College of the Ozarks — a small, Christian liberal arts school near Springfield, Missouri, with a student body of about 1,400 — would no longer use Nike as the supplier for their athletes’ uniforms. “In their new ad campaign, we believe Nike executives are promoting an attitude of division and disrespect toward America,” College President Jerry C. Davis said in a statement, according to The Star. “If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them.”

The same month, a private Southern Baptist college in Georgia, Truett McConnell University, announced that it too would be cutting ties with Nike, which supplies t-shirts and other goods to its bookstore. University President Eric Caner said that Nike’s support of Kaepernick “mocks our troops.”

But Kaepernick has also received his fair share of support Both LeBron James and Serena Williams openly supported Nike’s decision to sign the controversial athlete. “Having a huge company back him, you know, could be a controversial reason for this company, but they’re not afraid,” Williams said.

While Nike’s stock price feel more than 2% the day after the announcement, the tumble was attributed to broader market anxiety, as competitors fell at a similar rate, according to The Times.

The Washington Post reports that Nike had experienced a 31% increase in online sales since announcing Kaepernick as the face of its campaign and that its stock, on Sept. 13, 2018, had hit an all-time high at $83.47.

Nike’s “Betsy Ross flag” shoes axed after Kaepernick criticism

Nike sparked controversy online again in July 2019 with its plan to release a pair of special edition sneakers with the 13-star model of the U.S. flag, a design historically associated with seamstress Betsy Ross. Contemporarily, however, the so-called “Betsy Ross flag” has been co-opted by racist groups including the Ku Klux Klan, which has included it in flyers and other publications, according to The New York Times. After Kaepernick expressed concerns to the company about the modern-day connotations of the Betsy Ross flag, Nike pulled the shoes, “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday,” a company spokesperson said.

The situation reignited the partisan Kaepernick culture war online, with prominent Republican figures denouncing Nike’s “political correctness.” Most notably, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) pulled his support for a $184 million Nike plant supposed to open in Goodyear, Arizona, creating 500 jobs; the city said its financial incentives to Nike still stood, even if the state’s did not. Other Republican politicians, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and former presidential candidate Herman Cain, also tweeted out their disapproval of Nike’s decision.