Nike is no stranger to controversy. The sportswear firm has run advertising featuring Lance Armstrong after a doping scandal, Maria Sharapova following a failed drugs test, and Tiger Woods in the midst of a sex scandal and after a drug driving accusation.
But selecting Colin Kaepernick, an outcast American football player and civil rights activist, as the face of its new global advertising campaign is its most divisive move.
Kaepernick has been a polarising figure since 2016, when, as a player for the San Francisco 49ers, he refused to stand during the national anthem. At first he sat as a protest, then later sank to his knee. The protest was intended to draw attention, he said, to police killings of African Americans and other injustices.
Nike’s share price fell by 2% on Tuesday as the response ranged from people burning trainers and cutting the Nike logo from their socks to threatening a complete boycott of the brand. On the other side, the campaign was lauded by figures including the basketball player LeBron James and Serena Williams.
Kaepernick said of his protest: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Soon, his teammates joined him and the protest spread to other players, lasting into the 2017 season. The NFL released a statement saying players were “encouraged to” but not required to stand during the national anthem as anger grew among members of the public. The former NFL great Jerry Rice accused Kaepernick of “disrespecting the flag,” though he said he understood his stance.
Donald Trump waded into the furore, using his stage at a political rally to launch a sensational attack on NFL players who chose to take the knee. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” The American president raged.
Team owners reacted to widespread condemnation by banding together and ruling that all players must stand during the national anthem. In 2017 when Kaepernick became a free agent, a player without a club, no team offered him a contract, and that October, he filed a grievance against the NFL accusing team owners of colluding to keep him from being signed.
The new Nike advert nods to the 30-year-old’s apparent exile from the league. It features a black and white close-up of Kaepernick’s face overlaid with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Announcing the campaign, Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice-president of brand, said: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward. We wanted to energise its meaning and introduce ‘Just Do It’ to a new generation of athletes.”
Kaepernick, who grew up in California, has been compared to the likes of the boxer Muhammad Ali and Jesse Owens, the African American star of the 1936 “Nazi Olympics”, in using his sporting prowess to draw attention to wider social issues.
He had a previous deal with Nike, the main clothing sponsors of the NFL, but hadn’t appeared in their campaigns since 2011. A new agreement was negotiated and Kaepernick was made one of the faces of the brand’s 30th anniversary of the “Just Do It” slogan. The move re-ignited a debate that has rumbled in the background for many months and was played out on talk shows across America yesterday.
John Brennan, a CIA director from 2013-2017, tweeted his support, saying the athlete was a successful social justice campaigner. “Colin Kaepernick drew our collective attention to the problem of continued racial injustice in America,” Brennan wrote. “He did so not to disrespect our flag but to give meaning to the words of the preamble of our constitution – ‘in order to form a more perfect union’. Well done, Colin.”
But opponents took to social media, promising to destroy Nike products. On Twitter, they hit out at the deal using the hashtag #JustBurnIt, which trended alongside #BoycottNike.
The country singer John Rich tweeted a photo of his sound engineer holding a pair of Nike socks with the brand’s swoosh logo cut out. “Former marine. Get ready Nike, multiply that by millions,” he wrote.