They’ve heard it from many corners over the past couple of years. Stick to sports. Shut up and dribble. They’ve listened to the president of the United States call for NFL players to be fired because of their demonstrations to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality during the national anthem.
Now they have the top sports-apparel maker in the world behind them, with an ad campaign that lauds Colin Kaepernick and is a thumb in the eye of the NFL, with which Nike has a contract to supply uniforms and swooshes.
After Nike this week made Kaepernick the face of a 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, drawing calls for a boycott, some of the biggest sports names outside the NFL quickly sided with the apparel company. In the immediate aftermath of Kaepernick’s ad reveal Monday afternoon, Serena Williams and LeBron James, both of whom have contracts with Nike, offered unequivocal support.
The NFL, meanwhile, released a statement Tuesday, saying that the league “believes in dialogue, understanding and unity” and embraces “the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities.”
“The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action,” the statement concluded.
Williams is the focal point of a Nike campaign that coincides with her U.S. Open appearance, one that celebrates her journey both as a woman of color in a predominantly white sport and as a new mother. She shared an image from that campaign Monday night that shows her as a young girl, swinging a racket on the courts of Compton, Calif., with the words “It’s only a crazy dream until you do it.” To that, she added: “Especially proud to be a part of the Nike family today.”
That echoed her comments last week at the Open, where she praised Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid, who also has taken a knee during the anthem and who has been unable to find NFL employment after the end of his time with the 49ers.
“I think every athlete, every human, and definitely every African American should be completely grateful and honored how Colin and Eric are doing so much more for the greater good,” Williams told reporters. “They really use their platform in ways that [are] really unfathomable. I feel like they obviously have great respect from a lot of their peers, especially other athletes, people that really are looking for social change.”
James, who has famously tangled with President Trump, shared Nike’s image of Kaepernick on Instagram on Monday night — that already familiar close-up of Kaepernick’s eyes with the words, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Russell Okung, the Los Angeles Chargers’ offensive tackle who is also in the Nike stable, tweeted: “Be like NIKE, don’t be like Papa John’s,” and went on to add, “don’t be like EA Sports.”
The founder of Papa John’s blamed the anthem controversy last fall for his company’s sagging sales, saying it was an aftereffect of the league’s “poor leadership” and “should have been nipped in the bud a year and a half ago.” The company, which had been the NFL’s official pizza sponsor since 2010 and advertised heavily during games, quickly went into damage-control mode, apologizing for John Schnatter’s comments and eventually removing him as CEO effective Jan. 1. EA Sports came under fire recently for appearing to have edited out Kaepernick’s name from a song in the latest version of its Madden video game franchise. The company apologized and put the quarterback’s name back in the YG song “Big Bank.”
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It may seem odd that Nike, which has an apparel contract with the NFL that runs through 2028, would so publicly risk angering its business partner by launching a Kaepernick ad campaign. And the NFL was provided with “no advance notice, as far as I know,” a source familiar with the league’s inner workings told The Post’s Mark Maske.
The quarterback began his campaign to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice by sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem in the summer of 2016, and such demonstrations have roiled the NFL over the past two seasons while inviting frequent political broadsides. And Kaepernick, who parted with the 49ers in the spring of 2017, has been unable to find work in the NFL since, a situation that led him to file a grievance alleging collusion among team owners to keep him out.
Nike has shown a willingness to use its athletes in a rebellious pose, albeit it in a vastly different time and with vastly different implications. When the NBA banned Michael Jordan’s black-and-red Nikes in 1985, Nike made him the face of the company, and his Jordan line has since become a global force. Jordan first wore the shoes in 1984, saying: “I felt like I wanted to be different. The league said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stop that.’ ”
The choice to use Kaepernick will prompt a different level of scrutiny, the topic now political activism rather than personal style. But Nike athletes like James and Williams have been increasingly vocal in recent years, on topics ranging from former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist comments to police shootings to those same demonstrations started by Kaepernick.
That activism now officially has a Fortune 500 company behind it.
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