Nike picks a side in Colin Kaepernick debate, but will it pay off?

Nike’s roots are anti-establishment, little guy vs. big, athlete first, its eventual “Just Do It” slogan representing an ethos that in the end, all that matters, is the end. It began as an upstart making running shoes on a waffle maker in Oregon. It is, now, one of the world’s biggest brands.

It got there, in part, by pushing boundaries. Aggressive designs, aggressive pricing, aggressive advertising and, yes, aggressive athletes.

It built a signature shoe around Michael Jordan when he was just a flashy rookie and at a time when African-American pitchmen for mainstream products were exceedingly rare. It built a tennis line around the flamboyant Andre Agassi that many mainstream fans despised. It did the same with Tiger Woods in golf, and then stuck by him through scandal even as much of corporate America (and many Americans) bailed.


Now comes Monday’s announcement that Nike is going to feature Colin Kaepernick in a series of “Just Do It” advertisements. Kaepernick is facing his second season without an NFL job in large part due to his protesting social inequality during pregame national anthems during the 2016 season.

In a company built on taking risk, this may be its biggest.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” one advertisement released by the company Monday reads, the words running across a black and white image of Kaepernick.

Nike told ESPN the campaign is designed for 15- to 17-year-olds.

“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,” Nike vice president Gino Fisanotti told ESPN.

For that generation, he may be. For older ones, it’s going to be interesting to see.

If nothing else, there is one American, currently residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., who won’t be pleased, except that Nike has revived one of his more popular political positions and favorite wedge issues just in time for the midterms.

Meanwhile, on Park Avenue in New York, the NFL headquarters has to be furious that on the eve of the season, one of its biggest partners is making Kaepernick, who is currently suing the league (and by extension player protests during the anthem) a front-and-center news item again.

Just as the NFL hoped it had outlasted, mostly via boredom, the protesting controversy, here comes a fresh plot twist just in time for Season 3. It further highlights the abject failure of commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners to solve this issue, leaving itself exposed for repeated boiling ups.

Colin Kaepernick, center, kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game in 2016. (AP)
Colin Kaepernick, center, kneels during the national anthem before an NFL football game in 2016. (AP)

Kaepernick’s basic message is hardly radical – every American should be in favor of improved, and less violent, relationships between police and citizens. His method of expressing it, during the playing of the national anthem, allowed the situation to be viewed differently by different people. It’s where everything gets contentious. Messaging hasn’t been disciplined. The lack of discipline has made it easy to hijack. While Kaepernick has been active in grassroots movement, he hasn’t spoken publicly in well over a year, allowing a vacuum for the movement to form.

Mostly, though, there is the flag. Some people see protesting during the playing of the national anthem as a uniquely and perfectly American thing to do. Others see it as an affront to the military and/or the police.

Each is a reasonable position amidst a complicated debate that doesn’t stand a chance in a polarized political and media environment. There is little doubt President Donald Trump will be calling for a mass boycott of Nike and heating up the bashing of football players, current and Kaepernick.

Nike knows this. Nike calculated this. Nike clearly believes that making a deal with Kaepernick is worth whatever backlash ensues. Some people will burn their shoes. Some will swear off buying the swoosh.

Nike has to figure it can make up those sales with this campaign. Or at least bolster its brand for the next couple of decades. Time will tell whether it calculated correctly.

Perhaps the riskiest part of this, opposed to past moves by Nike, is that Kaepernick the quarterback is effectively retired. The NFL has made it clear it isn’t going to hire him, even as a backup.

It’s one thing to gamble on a controversial athlete when the bet is basically that said athlete will be able to again prove and inspire within the field of play. It was tense when Nike stuck with Kobe Bryant following his 2003 arrest for sexual assault, but once he settled with the victim, there were 13 more seasons of Kobe starring for the Los Angeles Lakers. Eagle, Colorado was mostly forgotten.

Kaepernick is Kaepernick. He is viewed as he is viewed. There will be no more Super Bowl marches to shift the focus from his activism to his athleticism. What he represents is mostly baked in, at least for a large segment of America.

Nike must believe it can change that a bit, or that Kaepernick will increasingly become an icon. It may be correct. It may be underestimating the bedrock backlash or Trump’s ability to whip up emotions and support.

Nike picked a side here, which it has always been willing to do. This one, though, may be its most fascinating to watch.

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