Stephen Martin heard all the arguments defending NFL players who protested against social injustice and police brutality. He even understood them, to an extent.
“There is social injustice in the criminal justice system,” Martin said. “Oh my God, Trayvon [Martin], Rodney King. These things are documented and filmed.”
But Martin, who owns a sports merchandise store in Colorado Springs called Prime Time Sports, couldn’t wrap his head around players kneeling during the national anthem. So he threw himself into the debate. Three years ago, he canceled an autograph signing with Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall after Marshall joined the ranks of protesting players. Around the same time, he asked customers and Facebook friends and friends of Facebook friends to send photographs of active duty members of the military or veterans.
He’d tape them on the floor-to-ceiling windows at the front of his store. More than 4,000 images arrived. And after Nike made quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of a prominent ad campaign last year, Martin stopped selling the company’s merchandise, a radical step for a sports store in a mall.
Now Prime Time Sports is closing, Martin announced Monday, a victim of both the culture wars surrounding the Kaepernick debate and the broader pains afflicting brick-and-mortar retailers. Without embroiling itself in controversy, the mall that houses Martin’s store is struggling, too. The Sears is closing soon. A Dick’s Sporting Goods pulls away some of his business.
But the national headlines arrived this week because of Kaepernick, and because of a store owner who wanted to fight back against the protesting players and wound up out of business.
“Being a sports store without Nike is like being a gas station without gas,” Martin joked in a phone interview this week.
His final crisis was precipitated when Nike threw its support behind Kaepernick ahead of the 2018 NFL season, with the rallying cry, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” Martin had already been a vocal critic of the player protests during the national anthem. But this ad campaign made him “inflamed” with anger.
He came into his store the next day in the middle of the afternoon with homemade signs printed on construction paper and told his employees to close up shop and take the rest of the day off. The next day when Prime Time Sports opened, it did so with signs that read, “ALL NIKE 1/2 PRICE. ‘JUST DOING IT.’”
He vowed to never order from Nike again.
But making a proclamation like that irrevocably hurt his business. Nike is the NFL’s official apparel sponsor. Going without its products — and selling the remaining ones at a steep discount — meant no more Nike NFL jerseys or T-shirts or hoodies. It meant significantly less merchandise on the shelves from some of the nation’s most popular college teams, too.
Business has been as brisk as ever since the pronouncement, Martin said. Even with the discount, 2018 Christmas sales beat the 2017 Christmas season by $13,000. More than several times a day, patrons will ask clerks if the owner is in. They shake Martin’s hand and congratulate him on the monument that hangs on his windows and thank him for taking a stand.
But the discounts on Nike merchandise — Prime Time Sports had $320,000 of it in stock at the time of the Kaepernick ad — cost Martin his financial lifeline. Once he got through January, the writing was on the wall that the business couldn’t last.
“PRIME TIME SPORTS is closing. All merchandise 40% OFF,” Martin wrote Monday morning on Facebook. “Thank You for 21 mostly good years. For everybody that has offered help and support through the ‘Honor The Flag’ memorial wall and NIKE boycott, now is your time to help me liquidate.”
He has five years left on a 10-year lease at the mall. He already owes more than $60,000 in back rent, according to the mall’s ownership company, Namdar Realty Group. Rent is $9,000 a month. Namdar filed an eviction complaint on Feb. 7.
“I’m in a scary place,” he said. “I’m hoping that they’ll work with me. And I’ve been open with them. I’m 64 years old headed into retirement. I can’t pay 350 grand, but I can pay something. I’m worth something.”
His fight started three years ago, when his store lined up an autograph session with Marshall for $10,000. Coming off Denver’s 2016 Super Bowl win, Martin figured Broncos fans would be happy to part with their money, that he would move the 250 autographs at $40 a piece he needed to break even. Then came Denver’s 2016 season opener. When Martin came home from the store and turned on the game, Marshall was the only player he saw kneeling during the anthem.
“It was a nightmare from hell,” Martin said.
The next day at the store, regular customers greeted him by asking why he’d invite a player like Marshall to make an appearance in Colorado Springs, a military town. People called and threatened to boycott the store and the entire mall. Martin told them he signed Marshall three months ago. He had no idea this would happen.
He canceled the signing, and asked local television and radio stations to help spread the word so fans wouldn’t show up at Prime Time Sports and be disappointed when no NFL players arrived. But when that news came out, more phone calls poured in.
“You racist! You bigot!” callers shouted at whomever picked up the store’s phone, he recalled. People threatened to demonstrate in front of the store. The mall called in extra security guards just in case.
He wrote on Facebook about his father-in-law, Kenneth J. Porwoll, who survived the Bataan Death March during World War II.
“I was at this man’s funeral,” he wrote. “I saw the American Flag draped over his coffin. I was there when that folded American Flag was handed to his wife . . . I heard that 21 gun salute. This store owner believes that the simple act of standing during our national anthem is a noble and responsible gesture that salutes our nation and the military that protects it.”
That’s when he first created the display of military photographs. And even as the national anthem controversy died down, more photographs kept pouring into Martin’s store. People sent him essays about the people in the photographs to go along with the photos. Where they once took up a horizontal strip across the middle of the windows, they now blocked out the light coming from the mall’s corridors outside the store.
And then came the Nike ad, and Martin’s anti-Nike proclamation, and the boycott, and, ultimately, the end of Prime Time Sports.
“Nike ran that ad to increase business, and I’m just collateral damage,” he said. “And it could be that there are more people that are in opposition to me than I realize.”
He hopes to have the business closed by the end of the month, so he doesn’t have another rent payment hanging over him. Some families who sent photographs for the window memorial have sent checks — $100 here, $25 there — to help ease the financial burden.
Martin tells patrons now he doesn’t regret the stand he took. He refused to be shill for the NFL or for Nike, he tells them. There are men and women in the military who made real sacrifices, he says. He has no ill will toward Kaepernick, or any of the players demonstrating during the anthem, but he wishes they had some perspective.
“Colin just lost a career, some NFL money,” he said.
So did Stephen Martin.
Read more from The Post: