For those who have somehow missed the headlines from the past couple of weeks, Nike’s new campaign honoring its 30th anniversary of their slogan — “Just Do It” — features Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback infamous for kneeling during the national anthem in order to protest racism, police brutality, and a nation that does not represent all people equally. Kaepernick is the face of this campaign; his ad includes his face along with the statement: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Other athletes featured in this campaign include LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Odell Beckham Jr.
Before I dive into my concerns regarding this move, the message Nike has sent to the world through this campaign is assuredly a positive one, and I am glad that Nike has chosen to establish themselves as “for the cause.” That being said, many questions enter my mind when weighing the implications of this campaign. For one, what took Nike so long? Kaepernick began kneeling two years ago during the preseason, and he opted out of his contract at the end of the season (if he hadn’t opted out, he would have been released by the 49ers organization). That time frame would have been as good a time as any for Nike to stand with their contractual partner. Instead, they sat it out until Kaepernick’s deal with Nike expired just a couple of weeks ago, waiting until they extended his contract. While Nike intended to align the timing of the campaign with his contract renewal, the message certainly does not feel as genuine as it could have been if they had backed him from the get-go. One must consider why Nike waited all this time to endorse Kaepernick, leaving him on an island unsigned by any NFL organization since the beginning of the last season.
Some might justify the timing of Nike’s campaign by considering the business aspect of spreading a progressive message. With many viral clips surfacing of people burning their Nike products, some jump to the assumption that Nike has made a risky move in “pushing an agenda.” Therefore, they must have spent the past year questioning the stakes of such a radical campaign… right? History tells us otherwise, as this isn’t the first time Nike has profited in the face of controversy. When Michael Jordan first began playing in the NBA, Nike marketed the Air Jordans—a pair of basketball shoes that violated the NBA rules for uniformity of jerseys. Jordan ignored these rules and proceeded to wear his shoes on the court, while Nike promised to pay the fines given to Jordan by the NBA. Given Jordan’s substantial success on the court in his rookie year, this Nike campaign received attention from across the globe, thus leading to a grand sale of Air Jordans. If there’s anything to take away from the decision to publish an ad narrated by Kaepernick, it’s this: Nike knows exactly what they are doing. They know their audience, and they know how much they’ll lose from this campaign. Again, the message is not the issue — rather, the motivation behind the message demands critique and questioning.
The historical malpractice of Nike has not even been brought to attention yet. Since the 1970s, Nike has been under fire for the use of sweatshops in Southeast Asia, to which Todd McKean, the director of Nike in 2001, commented, “Hey, we don’t own the factories. We don’t control what goes on there.” Just this year, company surveys exposed the extremely misogynistic culture of the company, which resulted in at least six male executives announcing their plans to leave, including the head of diversity and inclusion and a vice president in footwear. These negative reputations Nike has established for itself center around marginalization and inequality—both concepts that are directly condemned through this campaign. Before Nike preaches messages about opportunity for all, they need to take a step back and ask if their own company abides by them.
It is practically impossible for a product ignited by a capitalist system to take a genuine stance on a real-world problem. Everything a company does stems from the need to earn money, even if the ideological messages are valid. Continue to rally behind Colin Kaepernick and his story, but don’t sing Nike’s praises.