The shoes were not designed to offend.
Red, white and blue with the image of a historical American flag stitched on the heel, the shoes with a July 4 release week seemed like an innocuous attempt by Nike to capitalize on the hot dogs and fireworks and patriotism that mark the holiday.
Instead, the company found itself at the center of a political firestorm. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick reportedly complained about the shoes with the flags on them, and Nike canceled the sneakers’ production.
Kaepernick, who is a face of the company, told Nike that he found the Betsy Ross flag — designed in 1777 with a circle of 13 stars, one for each American colony — offensive because of its connection to the era of slavery, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The company’s decision to cancel production on the shoes triggered a now-familiar dispute about the racial implications of a historical symbol, drawn along predictable political lines.
Some conservatives, Fox News hosts and prominent Republican officials such as Sens. Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Josh Hawley (Mo.) have lashed out at the company, calling for a boycott and accusing it of being “anti-American.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) urged Nike to reverse its decision, saying: “I’ll make the first order.”
But more significantly, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, said he had ordered state authorities to revoke a modest incentive package it offered Nike to open a factory near Phoenix.
He did so because Nike “bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism,” he said.
“It is a shameful retreat for the company,” Ducey said on Twitter. “American businesses should be proud of our country’s history, not abandoning it.”
The state’s incentives made for only a portion of the money Nike was scheduled to receive for its new plant in Goodyear, a suburb west of Phoenix.
Georgia Lord, the mayor of the 83,000-person city, said Tuesday it would honor the agreement made with the company before the controversy broke.
“I can appreciate the emotion and discussion that I’ve heard on this important topic,” she said in a statement. “It has been a focus of the Goodyear City Council to build a strong economy for years to come and we will continue to work hard to bring the kind of high quality jobs that our residents deserve.”
The Goodyear council voted on Monday to authorize about $2 million worth of incentives to bring the company to the area, in exchange for Nike’s promise to create 500 full-time jobs with sufficient health-care plans.
Nike did not respond to a question about whether it could, or would, continue to pursue a factory in Goodyear.
“Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday,” the company said in a statement. “Nike is a company proud of its American heritage and our continuing engagement supporting thousands of American athletes including the US Olympic team and US Soccer teams.”
Ducey has no authority in the allocation of the city’s funds, according to the Arizona Republic; instead, he sought to order the Arizona Commerce Authority to withdraw additional financial incentives that amounted to “up to $1 million.”
Boycotts by companies and independent contractors over governmental policies that cross what some see as lines on race, gender or sex have become a relatively common occurrence in the supercharged Trump era. But Ducey’s decision inverted the calculation — in this case, a state would monetarily punish a private company for a political decision it made.
“It’s hard to imagine a sadder scenario from a free-expression perspective,” New York University law professor Burt Neuborne, a First Amendment expert, told The Washington Post. “Private people being blackmailed into repudiating their expression and the government using its power to punish the blackmail victim. There isn’t an adult in the room. When we have no substantive policies to debate, symbolism dominates.”
Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said Nike may actually benefit from the dust-up, which pushed the company into the headlines. And it may play favorably with younger consumers — 12- to 25-year-olds who are more likely to wear stylish sneakers than the 55-year-old governor of Arizona.
“I think it’s pretty bold by Nike and shows their trust in Colin Kaepernick,” Burton said. “It’s really impressive that Colin Kaepernick is shaping Nike’s strategy and decision in ways maybe more prominent athletes are not.”
Burton said it was likely that Nike factored in the potential ramifications of its decision, a choice that shows its respect for Kaepernick and willingness to align itself with his values.
“It suggests he’s at the table with Nike execs,” he said.
The company has faced political head winds before, intentionally leaning into controversy when it tapped Kaepernick — a lightning rod for his role initiating protests during the national anthem while he was in the NFL — to be one of the faces of a 30th anniversary ad campaign last fall. That decision also touched off a round of condemnation from Republican officials, including President Trump.
But the political outcry did not hurt the company’s bottom line. In fact, its sales have grown higher since the ad was released — data that hints at the business calculations that typically underscore bold advertising decisions made by international brands like Nike.
Other states were already lining up for the company’s business on Tuesday.
“Let’s talk,” New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) tweeted at the company. Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman, told The Post that the governor’s office had reached out to Nike to see whether New Mexico could be a “potential fit” for the company’s plans.
The Betsy Ross flag in question is named after an upholsterer who was a contemporary of Founding Fathers such as George Washington, though there are questions about whether she is actually responsible for the design because the legend first emerged in a speech given by her grandson in 1870.
Though the flag has been used on occasion by hate groups — as has the current American flag — it is not a notable or unique symbol of white supremacists or other hate groups, according to Mark Pitcavage, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism.
“You can go to an endless amount of white-supremacist rallies and never see a Betsy Ross flag,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, it’s used by ordinary people in ordinary circumstances as a cool-looking patriotic and historical flag.”
He said the flag had found some traction in the militia movement, an anti-government philosophy with extremist elements whose followers have gravitated toward symbols from the American Revolution, such as the “Don’t tread on me” flag.
But for symbols that have multiple meanings, context is important, Pitcavage said, noting the popularity of swastikas in Asia as a symbol of peace and goodwill.
Still, the Betsy Ross flag has been used in ways that have been seen as offensive. In 2016, a schools superintendent in Grand Rapids, Mich., apologized after some students at a predominantly white high school in the area brought the flag to a football game featuring an opponent with majority black players. The superintendent, Dan Behm, said he believed the flag had been used as a symbol of “exclusion and hate.”