It’s the ultimate American multinational corporation, proudly headquarted in the United States, and synonymous with American sporting excellence. Alongside Coca-Cola and Apple, it’s one of the great American commercial institutions.
But now Nike have definitively come out against Donald Trump with the announcement that NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick is the face of a new advertising campaign.
Kaepernick is the player who, famously, sat down during the playing of the American national anthem, to protest against racial injustice and police brutality, before the San Francisco 49ers third preseason game of 2016, saying:
“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”, referencing a series of events that led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
He added that he would continue to protest until he feels like “[the American flag] represents what it’s supposed to represent”.
In the 49ers’ fourth preseason game, he opted to kneel, instead of sitting, explaining that he wanted to show more respect to former and current members of the US military while still making his protest, following a discussion with former NFL player and US military veteran Nate Boyer.
Many other players subsequently followed suit, ‘taking the knee’ as the pre-match anthem was played, and it wasn’t long before Donald Trump picked up on the movement, lambasting Kaepernick in March 2017, saying:
“And you know, your San Francisco quarterback. I’m sure nobody ever heard of him. I’m just reporting the news. There was an article today — I love to report the news and then they said I made a mistake, right? I said, ‘No, the people reporting the news made a mistake if it’s wrong.’ But there was an article today, it was reported that NFL owners don’t want to pick him up because they don’t want to get a nasty tweet from Donald Trump. Do you believe that? I just saw that. I just saw that. I said if I remember that one I’m gonna report it to the people of the Kentucky. Because they like it when people actually stand for the American flag.”
In September 2017, he went further, challenging the league’s owners to release anyone who ‘took the knee’, referring to each of them as a ‘son of a bitch’, saying at a rally:
“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!’
“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Trump has consistently, and almost certainly deliberately, misinterpreted Kaepernick’s protests as being disrespectful to the flag and the nation - despite the fact that he himself forgot the words to the anthem in January this year.
Kaepernick, 30, has suffered for his protests - after opting out of his contract with the 49ers in March 2017 he has been without a team, and filed a grievance against NFL team owners who he claims conspired not to hire him because of his protests. On Thursday it was ruled that the case can go to trial.
However, he has received Amnesty International’s highest honour for his actions, and now this deal with Nike, who described him as “one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation”.
Furthermore, Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice-president of brand for North America, added: “He has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.”
Make no mistake, Nike’s move is a big one. Kaepernick has been definitive on his position regarding Trump, and more than two months before his stunning election win, called him “openly racist”, to which Trump responded:
“I have followed [Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the anthem] and I think it’s personally not a good thing, I think it’s a terrible thing. And maybe he should find a country that works better for him, let him try. It won’t happen.”
Nike have chosen to back Kaepernick, and adopt an undeniably political stance, potentially alienating a good deal of their customer base. Moreover, the company has big plans for him, with an insider telling Yahoo Sports that they plan to release a line built around him encompassing shoes, shirts, jerseys and other apparel. The campaign is part of a wider set of ads celebrating the 30th anniversary of its ‘Just Do It’ slogan, which also features Serena Williams and fellow NFL players Odell Beckham Jr and Shaquem Griffin.
One executive told Yahoo Sports, “It’s the most controversial move [with an endorser] that Nike has ever made – especially if you’re going to craft something substantial around him. I can’t think of anyone in the history of Nike that would come close. Especially when you consider where the country is at and the fact that [President Donald Trump] will be very critical when big companies do things he doesn’t like. Trump could tweet tomorrow for everyone to boycott Nike. I’m sure that was one of the first considerations before a new deal. … But there’s the other side, where Colin Kaepernick could be the most powerful social persona that Nike ever signs. Not necessarily the most lucrative, but just the most powerful in terms of moving the social needle. That’s definitely part of the allure.”
Nike are betting that they’re going to come out on the right side of history, and they’re betting big. Is it a hunch, or is it based on something that they know and we don’t? And could this be the tipping point for other corporations to come out against Trump and finally turn the tide, with the midterms coming up fast in November?
Nike has a history of backing winners - they’ll be hoping they’ve picked another one in Kaepernick.