What happens when the largest seller of athletic shoes and apparel, as well as the supplier of game-day uniforms and sideline apparel for the NFL, partners with a football player who has become a cultural symbol of protests against police brutality? They generate $43 million in advertising buzz and a boycott among people who believe they are anti-American in doing so.
This year, Nike’s signature “Just Do It” slogan celebrates its 30th year after being debuted in 1988. In celebration, a number of print and television advertisements have been rolled out that include prominent athletes like Serena Williams, Odell Beckham Jr. and Shaquem Griffin. But what got the attention of most was an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who protested against police brutality in the United States in 2016.
Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem as a sign of protest has turned him into a cultural icon of the moment while also attracting negative attention from those who believe the protest disrespects the American flag.
The idea to kneel was given to Kaepernick by former Seattle Seahawks player and United States Army Green Beret Nate Boyer after he initially sat on the bench during a preseason game.
Boyer has said of the conversations between himself and Kaepernick, “We sorta came to a middle ground where he would take a knee alongside his teammate. Soldiers take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave, you know, to show respect. When we’re on a patrol, you know, and we go into a security halt, we take a knee, and we pull security.”
Kaepernick’s advertisement for Nike reads: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The quarterback left the 49ers in 2017 and has since remained a free agent. Kaepernick’s status as a continued free agent can be connected to his protest and it’s ripple effects across the league. As more football players take a knee during the national anthem, cries from critics, big and small, have become louder.
President Donald Trump has weighed in on the protests suggesting that players should be fired for their actions. These comments have the power to make NFL team owners nervous and therefore stay away from the possibility of signing Kaepernick. In November 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against NFL owners for colluding to keep him out of the league.
Nike could just be a “woke” company; getting behind Kaep’s fight and joining the protest. It’s bold, it’s provoking and it sends a clear message in a culture that is more and more entangled with politics and race. Nike has notably had partnerships with other black athletes such as Serena Williams and LeBron James who are vocal about social justice issues. By capitalizing on this moment of protest against injustice, not only does Nike look good but so do those fighting.
By placing Kaepernick’s face on advertisements that include a sentence about the injustice done to him for standing up against something and the famous “Just Do It” slogan, his story and the movement he is a part of has a bigger platform. This has made a small group of “former” Nike customers unhappy. Some took to social media to express their anger with the multinational corporation by burning shoes and cutting the iconic Nike swoosh off clothing. Yahoo! Sports reported that the city of Kenner, Louisiana, has banned city money from being spent on Nike products after a private memo was released by the mayor.
Think back to the protest done by boxing legend Muhammad Ali, when he refused to be drafted due to religious beliefs and in protest of the Vietnam War. Ali became a cultural figure then and even more after death, not only for sporting ability but for civil rights as well. Imagine the service that would have been done for Ali’s cause if Nike had chosen him for an ad campaign at that time.
The culture and acceptance around protest has changed since Ali’s time. Every day more and more people stand up for what they believe in and face the fallout from their right to speak freely. Kaepernick is a symbol for that and with Nike backing his fight, there appears to be nothing that can get in his way now.