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Nike’s Big Gamble on Colin Kaepernick

The business strategy behind the sneaker giant’s new, political advertising campaign

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past two years, Nike has kept Colin Kaepernick on the bench despite an endorsement partnership that dates back to 2011. In 2016, Kaepernick started using his platform as an NFL player to protest the extrajudicial killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers, among other tentacles of racism that reach American society. Kaepernick’s protest made him hugely controversial, and during the past two years, Nike hasn’t used the former 49ers quarterback as a spokesman even though he was under contract. Nike knows how to market an NFL quarterback, but even its politically outspoken athletes have tended to be known for their on-field achievements first.

Nevertheless, on Monday, Nike introduced Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, kicking off a new deal worth millions of dollars, comparable to the most lucrative deals Nike gives out to NFL players. The Oregon-based sportswear giant will not only use Kaepernick as a pitchman and style icon, but sell Kaepernick-branded apparel. This news comes at a time when even the memory of Kaepernick’s football career is fading.

Kaepernick is suing the NFL, a Nike partner, alleging he’s been blacklisted for inspiring a wave of protests. It’s been almost six years since Kaepernick ran for 181 yards against the Packers in a playoff game and almost two years since he took his last NFL snap. With his 31st birthday approaching, Kaepernick will probably come to the end of his football career within the next few years, whether the NFL invites him back or not.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” reads the first ad of the campaign. Nike has hired an activist, not just an athlete.

The proposition that police officers ought not shoot unarmed people of color is simple, but the issue has become complex and political. Some people oppose the medium of the message and view kneeling during the anthem to be unpatriotic or anti-military. Others confuse criticism of elements of our country’s political and social structure for condemnation of the whole.

That confusion is encouraged by a third and most dangerous wing of Kaepernick critics: those who understand that Kaepernick is attempting to dismantle a white supremacist social structure, and oppose him because that existing social structure suits them just fine. This pernicious minority can’t press the NFL and its corporate partners into squashing the protest by saying, plainly, “But the police exist to protect Us from Them.” This coalition is loud, but only by muddying the waters, throwing out red herrings, and roping in The Troops has it grown large enough to put pressure on the NFL.

So far, that pressure has produced a few results. Kaepernick remains unsigned, as does his former teammate Eric Reid, who also protested police brutality and has a similar, but separate, collusion grievance pending against the league. The NFL, ostensibly a bastion of conservatism as a hypermasculine, anti-labor, pro-military business, has come under repeated verbal attack by the Republican president of the United States, Donald Trump, for not being even more harsh toward its protesting employees. The league has attempted to quiet that criticism, but it’s been unable to do so, not while still keeping its mostly black labor force from walking out, and the NFL has looked clumsy and indecisive throughout the process.

Nike, in striking a new deal with Kaepernick, appears to reject the NFL’s plan of appeasement toward white supremacists. A small cadre of angry people with social media accounts have destroyed shoes or clothing they’ve already paid Nike for and pledged to boycott the company in the future, and these online randos have been cheered on by their intellectual equals in elements of the conservative press.

“I support every American’s right to protest whatever they want,” the musician John Rich tweeted, promising to switch to Reebok. “However, if you endorse someone who wears #PIGSOCKS that’s where you lose me. If @nike wants their ‘swoosh’ to be associated with calling our police ‘Pigs’ then so be it. I have a right to not purchase.”

Rich is free to buy whatever shoes he likes, from whomever he likes, for whatever reason he likes. But he’s misreading the situation if he thinks that Nike re-signed Kaepernick for political reasons.

Nike might now be a social justice warrior in the pejorative online shorthand but is practically antithetical to the concept in any other context. Nike is a for-profit company, worth tens of billions of dollars. You can’t build a multi-billion-dollar company from scratch in 54 years if social justice is anything approaching a primary concern. Companies like Nike are by nature aggressively amoral.

Kaepernick and Reid aren’t the only people in this story who are suing former employers—in August, four women who used to work at Nike headquarters filed a class-action lawsuit that said Nike systematically paid women less than men and turned a blind eye to sexual harassment. The lawsuit followed a New York Times story about a culture of sexual harassment and chauvinism among company executives. This, along with Nike’s decades-long use of sweatshop labor, does not paint the picture of a company concerned with any particular brand of morality.

Therefore, re-signing Kaepernick must be motivated by the pursuit of profit. There’s a thriving independent art and apparel industry in support of Kaepernick, and perhaps Nike wants in on the action. Perhaps throwing its support for Kaepernick will appease some of the company’s more politically engaged and highest-profile athletes, like LeBron James and Serena Williams.

But most of all, Nike’s move is a direct wager against appeasement of white supremacy as sound business policy. Even as the NFL has strained to resolve the president’s opposition to the protests of Kaepernick and players like him, the league and its sponsors continue to endure attacks from the right. For instance, former Papa John’s CEO John Schnatter’s fall from grace began when he blamed his company’s falling stock prices on the NFL’s inability to resolve the controversy Kaepernick ignited. Maybe Nike figures that the far right is going to throw a tantrum no matter what the NFL and its corporate partners do, and if that’s going to happen they might as well sell some athleisure to people who don’t find Kaepernick’s message of racial equality offensive. Socialists buy sneakers, too.

Through one day, this looks like a smart idea: Nike’s stock dipped on Tuesday following ongoing uncertainty around NAFTA, which some people want to see as a commercial rebuke of Kaepernick. Of course, Puma and Adidas, competitors who planned to make a run at Kaepernick if he didn’t re-sign with Nike, took similar losses. (Adidas owns Reebok, which Rich might want to consider as he looks for a new pair of running shoes.)

Nike betting on Kaepernick is encouraging for those of us who find his message not only inoffensive but worthy. A major corporation has put a financial stake in the idea that the people who either oppose Kaepernick’s message or choose to misunderstand it are a small minority whose arguments can be ignored. Amoral though it may be, Nike apparently believes that people who believe in racial equality are more numerous, and more passionate, than those who oppose it. It’s comforting to know that someone does.