Nike’s decision to enlist Colin Kaepernick as one of its spokesmen for the 30th anniversary of its iconic “Just Do It” ad campaign doesn’t have to be brave to be right. This is a $36 billion company, so before we go handing out humanitarian awards, understand that the inclusion of an unemployed NFL quarterback — exiled by a billionaires’ club and reviled by some who live paycheck to paycheck — was studied, and studied hard. But at least Nike did what the NFL hasn’t been able to: It chose a side. That it happened to be correct is all the better.
Sure, Nike’s stock dropped more than 3 percent Tuesday, and pictures of people burning shoes dotted social media. But don’t tell me that caught Phil Knight with his retro Jordans untied. A company with Nike’s marketing savvy surely weighed the potential backlash with what it might gain and made a decision to enlist Kaepernick. A bold decision? Eh. A business one? For sure.
Still, even if it’s calculated, man, is it delicious, and there are so many little wrinkles. But there’s also something overarching. It’s clear now, 20 months since he was even invited to try out for an NFL team, that Kaepernick is winning. He is not on a roster, and that’s unfair. He may never throw another pass, and that would be too bad. But try to get rid of him.
Yeah, yeah, torch your sneakers or boycott his brand. Fine. That’s you taking a stand — which is absolutely your right — because you didn’t enjoy the stand taken by another American, which is absolutely his. Marry those two thoughts in your mind, if that’s even possible. We’ll move on to the season to come without Kaepernick, but we’ll do so understanding that we’re now more entrenched in the culture he reinforced. Protest, Kaepernick reminds us, is a normal part of American discourse. You can be isolated for it. But you can also be rewarded.
Kaepernick won’t be in uniform when the season opens Thursday night in Philadelphia, where the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles will host the Atlanta Falcons. But even as he has filed a grievance against the NFL — accusing league owners of colluding to shut him out — he will be present in so many ways, present because Philadelphia defensive back Malcolm Jenkins is still employed and still drawing attention to the racial inequalities Kaepernick intended to highlight with his original during-the-national-anthem protests more than two years ago, present because Nike’s new ad campaign has pushed him to the forefront of consciousness.
“Given the various moving parts right now, ranging from litigation to the NFL’s management of the issue and the media’s approach to covering it,” David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, wrote in an email, “he is more of a symbol than an athlete.”
That the NFL has botched its response to protests during the national anthem — and botched it badly — has been obvious for the past year. An American sports league is trying to come up with a “policy” to govern free expression, and some Americans believe that’s American. It makes the head hurt. That Kaepernick would come out on the other side unemployed but emboldened, not just personally and reputationally but financially? Tell me you saw that coming.
Consider the look-at-the-floor-and-mumble awkwardness in which the NFL now finds itself mired. One of its most important corporate partners, whose logo is present in every chest-up close-in shot of a player during a broadcast, has partnered with a person who is actively pursuing litigation against the league. When Nike and the NFL extended their agreement in March, Brian Rolapp, the league’s chief media and business officer, said as part of a joyous statement, “The NFL and Nike are a powerful combination.”
Nike is now using that power and taking it to the NFL. Even the language in what should be a bland statement filled with corporate lingo is sharply worded, as those things go.
“Nike has a long-standing relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on campaigns that use current NFL players,” a Nike spokesman said via email Tuesday. “Colin is currently not employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”
Hello, NFL? Yes, you’ve reached Nike. Yep, our deal to supply your uniforms runs through 2028, that’s right. Kaepernick? Yeah, we’re using him in ads. What’s that? You don’t like it? Well, pound sand, gents. You’re the people who chose not to employ him, even as you employ Brock Osweiler and Nathan Peterman, to name a couple.
Ah, how this must roil NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. He has done nothing to help clarify that professional football players kneeling during the national anthem has zero — zilch — to do with disrespecting people who served this country. Picture Goodell taking in that Thursday night opener. The Eagles and Falcons will be down on the field, wearing their jerseys branded with the Nike swoosh. And here comes Kaepernick on NBC’s broadcast, with a version of the “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” ad he debuted Monday on Twitter.
Please, Nike, call NBC. Please, NBC, take the call and run the ad.
And then, let’s tune in. Let’s tune in not to watch the Eagles welcomed home as champions or the Falcons’ quest to knock them off. Let’s tune in to be reminded that the NFL’s most important character no longer needs the NFL. Corporate America is now betting on Colin Kaepernick as a moneymaker. It may be calculated, but it doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
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