Nike CEO Mark Parker on the Decision to Pull the Controversial ‘Betsy Ross Flag’ Sneakers

Nike is no stranger to controversy.

The sportswear giant has long aligned itself with progressive social causes and supported activism (including via its 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign featuring ex-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick) that have led to social media outcry, boycotts and even public burnings of Nike shoes.

And according to CEO Mark Parker, the Beaverton, Ore.-based company intentional in its decisions to not dodge the tough conversations. In an interview published yesterday by Fast Company, part of the outlet’s 2019 Innovation by Design awards, the exec delved into Nike’s decision to pull a pair of special-edition sneakers that featured an early design of the American flag — one that is considered offensive by some due to its connection to an era of slavery.

Nike Air Max 1 USA, betsy ross flag shoes
Nike Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July.

Scheduled for release ahead of Independence Day, the controversial Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July shoes drew ire for the print at the heel: a version of the United States flag, with 13 white stars set in a circle. (The illustration was created during the American Revolution in the 1770s and represents the 13 original colonies.)

“It’s a more sensitive environment, so there are occasions when we’ve decided to pull our product and services from the market,” Parker said, addressing the brand’s view on social media reactions to a product. “The decision [regarding] that Air Max product was based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the Fourth of July holiday. That’s the reason we pulled it — not to create a source of polarization. We make those decisions sometimes. They’re rare, but it does happen. We’re trying not to offend.”

But it’s not just about products that could prompt criticism. Nike has also endorsed outspoken A-list figures in the sports arena, including tennis champ Serena Williams and soccer star Megan Rapinoe. The former, for instance, got the Swoosh’s memorable backing after the French Tennis Federation banned the Nike catsuit she wore during the 2019 French Open. (“You can take the superhero out of her costume,” the brand wrote in an ad, “but you can never take away her superpowers.”)

“There are values that are important to the brand and the company that we’re not going to shy away from,” Parker explained. “We support the views of our employees, our athletes. And, yeah, we will put a stake in the ground and take a stand.”

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