4 Times Nike and Colin Kaepernick Ignited Cultural Controversies

Colin Kaepernick was already a star in the NFL, but his national anthem protests over the treatment of minorities made him a polarizing household name. And the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback made headlines again this week, this time concerning a Nike product slated to hit the market ahead of July 4.

Nike announced yesterday that it would pull a Fourth of July-themed shoe featuring an early version of the American flag, dubbed the “Betsy Ross flag.” According to a Wall Street Journal report, Kaepernick reportedly reached out to Nike over the flag’s symbolism, which is deemed by some to be offensive due to its connection to an era of slavery.

And as expected, the move has ignited debate on social media — and among political figures and commentators.

Arizona governor Doug Ducey stated on Twitter yesterday he was “embarrassed for Nike” following the company’s decision to pull the shoes and announced he was withdrawing $1 million in tax breaks for Nike’s planned U.S. manufacturing center in the state.

Also yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged the athletic giant to rethink its plan. “I hope Nike either releases these shoes or some other shoe maker picks up the flag, puts it on a pair of shoes and starts selling it. I’ll make the first order,” he told reporters at an event in Kentucky.

And presidential son Donald Trump Jr. also weighed in on Twitter, suggesting an alternative July 4th Nike sneaker featuring a hammer and the colors of the Russian flag.

Despite the backlash, Nike continues to back Kaepernick. And as history has shown, not wavering on its support of the former quarterback is good for its business.

Nike received its share of criticism in September 2018 for featuring the controversial athlete in a pair of ads, with some people publicly vowing to never wear the brand again. But by month’s end, its stock price had actually increased. (After starting the month at $79.60, the company’s stock price closed the month at $84.72.)

Then in February, Nike delivered its second Kaepernick-themed product, a black-and-white jersey boasting his No. 7 that sold out shortly after its release. The drop came five days after news broke that the NFL and Kaepernick had settled the athlete’s collusion case against the league. And once again, Nike’s shares climbed that month, starting at $81.51 and hitting $85.73 by month’s end.

Below, a deeper look at the four times Nike and Kaepernick steered discussions that ignited public cultural controversies.

Kaepernick Sits, Then Kneels, for the National Anthem

Before his Aug. 26, 2016, preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, Kaepernick — a Nike athlete at the time — sat during the national anthem in protest over the treatment of minorities. “I’m not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said to a group of reporters explaining his actions. The San Francisco 49er then spoke with Nate Boyer, a former NFL long snapper and retired U.S. Army Green Beret, who suggested kneeling would be a more digestible form of protest. “In my opinions and in my experience, kneeling’s never been in our history really seen as a disrespectful act,” Boyer told NPR about his talks with the quarterback in September 2018. “I mean, people kneel when they get knighted. You kneel to propose to your wife, and you take a knee to pray. And soldiers often take a knee in front of a fallen brother’s grave to pay respects. So I thought, if anything, besides standing, that was the most respectful. But, of course, that’s just my opinion.” While these events took place long before Kaepernick began appearing in Nike ads, they turned the football pro into a globally recognized, though polarizing, figure.

Colin Kaepernick San Francisco 49ers, kneeling, national anthem
Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers (center) kneeling in protest.

Nike and Kaepernick Team Up on Ads

Two years after his protests, Nike tapped Kaepernick to star in a pair of ad campaigns. First, on Labor Day 2018, the athlete was featured in the brand’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” efforts, which showed a closeup image of his face with the caption “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Three days later, Nike revealed its “Dream Crazy” short film narrated by Kaepernick (who also made an appearance at the end) during the 2018 NFL regular season opener between the Philadelphia Eagles and Atlanta Falcons.

Colin Kaepernick, nike ad, just do it
Nike’s “Just Do It” 30th anniversary ad with Colin Kaepernick.

Nike Releases Kaepernick Product

The first product from the new Nike and Kaepernick partnership hit stores in October 2018 in the form of the “Icon” long-sleeve T-shirt, which sold out shortly after its release. And in February 2019, the Swoosh revealed the “Icon” jersey, which also didn’t last long in stores. Athletes including NBA star LeBron James wore the jersey in support of Kaepernick. (James donned the Nike jersey ahead of Super Bowl LIII, which was before it hit stores.)

Nike Pulls American Flag-Themed Sneaker

Nike had a sneaker for Fourth of July ready to release ahead of the holiday, but it was pulled from stores this week, and Kaepernick reportedly had something to do with it. The new-look Air Max 1 featured an image of an early design of the U.S. flag commonly called the “Betsy Ross flag,” which was created during the American Revolution in the 1770s and represents the 13 original colonies. The company told FN, “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured an old version of the American flag.” According to a Wall Street Journal report, Kaepernick informed Nike the flag could be deemed offensive due to its connection to an era of slavery.

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

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