Check For Polarity: Nike's Decision To Back Colin Kaepernick

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And America becomes further divided. 

In this tumultuous political climate that has positioned the right and the left at seemingly more extreme odds than ever, the most recent source of internet polarity is an athletic apparel brand. Nike, one of the most powerful companies in the world, has released the first ads for their 30th anniversary “#Justdoit” campaign, and the face of it is not exactly America’s sweetheart. 

On Wednesday, September 5, 2018 Nike tweeted “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough. #justdoit” along with a video ad. The short clip features a slew of athletes overcoming adversity, including a girl playing football, a wheelchair-basketball player, a young wrestler without legs, and several Nike sponsored athletes. Among the chosen representatives are Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, and, to the shock of America, Colin Kaepernick. 

This is the company’s first ad featuring the San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Two days prior to Nike’s tweet, Kaepernick shared the news of his recent endorsement with the statement “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #Justdoit” accompanied by the now iconic photo of an up-close black and white image of his face. The announcement affirms Kaepernick as the face of the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign. 

The following day, the first major billboard featuring the ad was placed in downtown San Francisco. Kaepernick notably left the 49ers in March of 2017 and did not sign onto another team for the next football season. He is currently involved in a collusion case against the NFL. The most recent step forward was a small victory for Kaepernick in the form of the summary judgment case as arbitrator Stephen Burbank ruled that Kaepernick’s legal team had sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. The date of said trial is expected to be set in the coming months. Among the evidence as stated by Yahoo! Sports writer Frank Schwab is “The fact that the NFL passed and then froze a rule that would allow teams to discipline players for conduct during the national anthem at games.” This rule was made in the aftermath of the kneeling during the anthem trend started by Kaepernick. 

Kaepernick was first endorsed by the major company in 2011 and has retained this sponsorship despite Kaepernick’s controversial reputation. His political activism began with his decision to remain seated during the traditional performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the 49ers third preseason game of 2016. The position did not go unnoticed, and after the game, he explained to NFL Media “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder." Kaepernick’s stance (or lack thereof) came in the midst of ongoing police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. His decision to bring social issues into the NFL was timely and even inevitable. A majority of NFL players are African American, and while the football stadium may not be the most conventional platform for demanding change, Kaepernick has proved that it can be an effective one. The 49ers, their coach, Chip Kelly, and the NFL all released statements citing Kaepernick’s right of freedom of expression and the fact that players are not required to stand for the national anthem. In the next game, however, Kaepernick chose to kneel during the anthem, which he explained was meant as a sign of respect towards veteran, yet his kneeling seemed to be more incendiary than just remaining seated. The trend began spreading throughout the sports world as several athletes followed Kaepernick’s lead. While some praised the trend for bringing attention to social matters, fellow athletes anonymously called him a traitor. 

Kaepernick’s notoriety skyrocketed as his activism expanded beyond football fandom. His jersey sales increased, yet former fans posted videos burning them. Veterans supported him with the hashtag #VeteransforKaepernick while others denounced him for disregarding their service. He was even ranked the most disliked player in the NFL. Even President Trump took to Twitter to insist that players rise for the national anthem, and tweeted in response to Kaepernick’s ad campaign “Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way? As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!” 

Nike’s recent announcement doubtlessly serves as a polarizing endorsement in a polarizing athlete. Not surprisingly, social media responded with split opinions. One half vowed to burn their Nikes and never buy the brand again, while the other half embraced the decision of the legendary swoosh.  

What does Nike stand to lose? But more importantly, what does Nike stand to gain? If half the country supports Colin Kaepernick and the other loathes him, can Nike truly pull ahead after losing consumer interest? Yet the brand loyalty within their grasp is insurmountable. The Huffington Post reported on September 8th that Edison Trends observed a 27 percent increase in Nike’s online sales despite speculation to the contrary. 

Nike recognizes that a majority of their consumers are from demographics that align themselves with the Black Lives Matter movement and support Colin Kaepernick’s activism. After all, in 2016 Nike’s CEO Mark Parker addressed a letter to his 32,000 employees concerning racial discrimination and violence, and signed off with #blacklivesmatter. Minority employees currently represent approximately 52% of staff. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that Nike chose to not only stand by Colin Kaepernick, but to embrace him as the face of their campaign.