Traditionally, athletic sponsorship deals go something like this: A shoe company gives an athlete money. In exchange, the athlete suits up in that company’s gear and transforms into a slam dunking, touchdown scoring, buzzer-beating advertisement for its products. No star has filled that role more tidily than Michael Jordan, whose iconic silhouette still adorns Nike’s products more than 15 years after his retirement.
Colin Kaepernick’s recently revealed sponsorship deal with Nike casts aside this simplistic formula and offers a new path forward for athletes and the shoe companies that sponsor them. The deal is controversial, yes, but it also demonstrates something important: Athletes have more power than they realize if they want to encourage companies to do the right thing. Social justice isn’t just part of the Nike-Kaepernick contract. It's the whole point of it. Indeed, he shows that his fellow athletes might approach their contracts as collaborative partnerships, and not just passive sponsorship.
Nike signed Kaepernick, who had already been under contract with the company since 2011, as one of the faces of its new campaign to mark 30 years of Just Do It. A marketing campaign to celebrate the anniversary of a marketing campaign — quintessentially Nike. (Disclosure: I had a Nike endorsement during my own career as a professional runner.) The deal reportedly includes a Kaepernick shoe and shirt, and the commitment from Nike to contribute funds to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights camps, which hark back to the Black Panthers’ youth and community workshops and provide information on educational pathways, self-empowerment and how best to interact with law enforcement. This is what’s most novel about the deal, and where the potential for something truly innovative lies. Nike could have paid a lot of money to Kaepernick, who then could channel those funds into social justice causes. Instead, the company is reportedly donating directly, as part of the contractual obligation with Kaepernick.
Kaepernick has remained relatively silent, so we do not know yet if this idea was Nike’s or Kaepernick’s. But it doesn’t matter. Even if Nike pitched the idea, Kaepernick chose to act, to align his efforts with one of the world’s largest apparel companies. Even as athletes press the body to its limits, we too often think of them as passive when they’re off the field, court or pitch — acted upon, given things and told what to do by companies. And many do, happy to take the money and gear.
But as Kaepernick, now better known for his activism than his performance, shows, they don’t have to be: Most athletic gear companies already have social commitments, but those initiatives often lack focus or a real raison d’etre. Accordingly, the athletes they sponsor are uncommonly well positioned to play a role, helping direct funds to their favored causes, while also amplifying public attention.
Nike, like virtually every Fortune 500 company, has a charitable arm with community grants and programs, but its commitment to an individual athlete’s personal charitable work might be unprecedented. That’s not to say the company hasn’t been working with athletes on a variety of social justice causes. But these efforts fall more in line with traditional community outreach programs organized by companies. For example, Nike’s N7 program focuses on serving Native American and indigenous communities, blending health and well-being education and resources, athletic shoe and apparel donations, and competitive grant programs. N7 ambassadors — Nike sponsored indigenous athletes — volunteer in various outreach efforts, and wear and promote specially designed N7 collection shoes and apparel celebrating indigenous artistic designs.
Re-signing Kaepernick and making him the face and voice of the 30th anniversary Just Do It campaign might be of a piece with those endeavors, but it also builds on other efforts that focus more directly on individual personalities. Past ad campaigns have celebrated hijab-wearing skateboarding and figure-skating girls, and most recently supported Serena Williams and her catsuit, in defiance of the French Open’s old guard. In addition to Kaepernick and Williams, Nike athletes include LeBron James, Ibtihaj Muhammad, Richard Sherman, Megan Rapinoe and Maya Moore. (Tellingly, many of these stories and figures feature in the two-minute “Believe in something” advertisement that Kaepernick tweeted Wednesday, a portion of which will air during the telecast of the first game of the NFL regular season Thursday.) These are activist athletes who speak and work on issues including police brutality, systemic racial inequality, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant policies, gender inequality, homophobia and transphobia.
The real lesson, though, might be for those whose names we don’t know yet. New pro athletes signing endorsement contracts are excited to wear the Nike swoosh, Adidas’s three stripes or really any logo. From here on out, though, they have the opportunity to put their own brand on those companies, whether or not they realize it yet. Thanks to Kaepernick and Nike, we now know the athlete’s relationship with any company can have social justice work built right into the contract.