By now, we’ve all seen the ad that Nike put out this week featuring Colin Kaepernick, the activist football player who started the “take a knee” national anthem protest against police brutality.
The ad depicts Kaepernick in black and white, looking calm, alert and determined. Across his face, written in white, authoritative lettering, are the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” At the bottom is Nike’s trademark swoosh and the words “Just do it.”
A couple days later, Nike came out with a full minute-long ad, presenting a variety of inspiring stories of underdog athletes overcoming disabilities to become the best in the world at their chosen sport, all narrated by Kaepernick.
To say that these ads have been controversial would be an understatement.
On one side of the aisle, many liberals have been quick to applaud Nike and celebrate the ads as a major victory in the fight against police brutality. On the other, a veritable horde of American racists have been up in arms, some going so far as to post videos to social media of themselves literally burning their socks and shoes in their suburban chimneas in opposition.
But, as this fervor has risen, I’ve been stuck wondering why would Nike put themselves in this position?
To be clear, the vast majority of Americans don’t like Colin Kaepernick. A little less than a year ago, FiveThirtyEight.com analyzed a bunch of survey data on how people in this country felt about the “take a knee” movement, and according to one CBS poll of 1,300 people, only 38% of Americans even approve of what Kaepernick is doing. If you limit it down to just White people, it’s closer to 27%.
I think it’s safe to say that Nike didn’t pick the guy to be their new face because he’s universally adored the way Michael Jordan was.
Nike is also not running these ads because they support Kaepernick’s cause.
It’s easy to see why Kaepernick cares. Today, with over two million people currently incarcerated, the United States has one of those largest prison populations on record, and with Black people five times as likely to end up incarcerated as White people, the racism inherent to the system at large is undeniable. Had his life turned out differently, and Kaepernick not been adopted as a little kid and gone on to find so much success as an athlete, statistically, he easily could have ended up a victim of this brutish policing system himself. As a major league athlete, Kaepernick has an unusually powerful platform to advocate for his fellow African Americans. “It would be selfish on my part,” he once told the media, “to look the other way.”
Nike, on the other hand, does not care.
Nike isn’t a charity. They’re a massively profitable global corporation. The corporate managers who produced the ads have a single legal obligation – making money for the company’s shareholders. If the ads stemmed from some sort of ideological conviction that cost the company money, not only would the mangers behind them be at risk of losing their jobs, they’d be legally culpable for breaching their contracts.
The people they work for, the company’s shareholders, are the sort of people who cull massive profits from paying garment workers in sweatshops in the developing world as little as they can get away with. A lot of Nike’s top investors are probably also invested in things like the Corrections Corporation of America and other for-profit ventures that make money off of the same racist law enforcement system that Kaepernick is protesting. With a few inevitable exceptions, my guess would be that most of the company’s top shareholders aren’t particularly dedicated to criminal justice reform.
So, if Kaepernick is so unpopular, and the people behind Nike couldn’t care less about his cause, why are they running the ads?
Some of it clearly has to do with Nike trying to reclaim their once bold, audacious public personae. The company began in 1964, originally operating under the name Blue Ribbon Sports with company founder Phil Knight famously importing Japanese sneakers and selling them out of the back of his car. Seven years later, in 1971, they rebranded to Nike and adopted the swoosh as their logo. Air Jordans came out thirteen years after that, with the “Just do it.” slogan launching shortly thereafter in 1988.
But that was 30 years ago. Today, Nike has become a well established fixture of the American commercial landscape. But maybe they’ve grown stale? Kaepernick may not be widely liked, but among the people who do like him, he’s strongly loved, and in any case, he certainly isn’t boring. As Oscar Wilde once said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Why not mix it up?
I think this explains a lot of it, but not all of it. For one thing, companies don’t usually take wild risks like this just to roll the dice for the hell of it. When Subaru decided to go after lesbian car buyers in the early nineties, as the NPR show Planet Money recently reported on, it was a huge risk. But the company had been flailing economically for several years, and they needed a Hail Mary pass. Nike doesn’t. In fact, their stock has been quietly booming over the last year. On September 7 of last year, it was selling for around $52 a share. On August 31, the day before the ad campaign came out, it was worth $82, a 57% increase.
So if their business was going fine, why run such a risky ad?
One word. Football.
The NFL is hurting. It can be hard to tell from Trump’s constant bluster what’s trash talk and what’s accurate, but after booming in 2016, with NFL industry earnings surpassing $13B, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stridently vowing to double that over the next ten years, the league got tackled in 2017 when viewership went down by about 9%. Interestingly, as more viewers have transitioned to streaming services, broadcast television at large has also dipped dramatically over the last year, but whether Kaepernick or Netflix or something else entirely is to blame, right now, football is in trouble.
This is bad news for Nike. They need the NFL. Badly.
For some sports, like basketball and soccer, which lots of everyday people play, Nike makes a hefty profit selling them the equipment they need, like shin guards and balls. With football, on the other hand, everyday people don’t play it much, but boy, do they watch it (or at least they used to). Football has been America’s top grossing sport for decades, and Nike has always made boatloads selling things to football fans, like official NFL t-shirts and hats. For years, Nike’s marketing strategy has also relied heavily on the ads they run during football games, which, even at their reduced ratings, remain some of the most watched broadcasts on television. When fans tune into games and see their favorite players sporting Nike products, they don’t go buy football gear themselves – they buy sneakers for the treadmill and shorts for the beach. Between the merch, the ads and the sponsored players themselves, for all practical purposes, the NFL itself is one of Nike’s most significant marketing platforms, and this feud between Trump and Kaepernick has taken a hefty bite out of its value.
I’m sure the Nike investors would have loved for the “take a knee” protests to stop.
But with Trump in power, setting Jeff “KKK” Sessions loose to run roughshod over our nation’s criminal justice system, ramping up predatory policing and sending even more Black men then ever to prison for nonviolent drug offenses, the players aren’t abut to back down. And good for them. In all of American media, live broadcasts of professional sports offer some of the only consistent opportunities for Black men, many from lower income families, to get in front of the camera and send their own symbolic messages out to a massive swath of the American public. When players kneel during the national anthem, it’s almost like a POW video where the captured soldier blinks an “SOS.” We are being held hostage by a criminal government. Things are not okay!
As the protests show no sign of abetting, Nike is now in the difficult situation of needing to figure out how to restore value to their faltering asset, the NFL.
So, they’re capitulating. As I see it, what other option do they have?
If Nike had continued to stay out of it, the league would have just continued to lose value, and they can’t afford that. They can’t side with Trump, against the players, because the players ARE the league. Nobody wants to buy sneakers from somebody whom everybody hates. So the only move left on the table for Nike is to hold up Kaepernick as a hero. The “take a knee” movement has effectively changed what it means to be an NFL football player, transforming it from being about acting like a big, brutish blockhead, to something far bolder. As Kaepernick models, today, being a football player is increasingly becoming about being a human being navigating a difficult, often cruelly adversarial world, and doing so with the integrity and courage to hold your ground in the face of injustice.
This probably is not what Nike’s top shareholders would have wanted. But it’s what Kaepernick has given them, and by embracing him, they are making the best of a bad situation, trying to restore value to one of their most prized assets, the NFL. Their message is simple – Kaepernick is good, the NFL is good, just come back, relax, watch the game, stick around for the ads, and next time you’re out shopping, remember us. This is what football is now, please love it again. Just do it.