Nike under fire for featuring Colin Kaepernick in ad

Anusha Kothari, Editor-in-Chief

Michael Jordan in 1985. LeBron James and Serena Williams in 2003. Colin Kaepernick in 2011. Nike has been represented by a number of athletes who have transcended social and political barriers. The company has a long history of conveying political messages in the process of advertising its brand. Although Nike’s Sept. 5 ad, starring Kaepernick, is more blatantly political than its previous ad campaigns, the brand’s involvement in political matters is justified and should be commended rather than criticized.

“I think it is extremely justified [for Nike to get political] especially because the youth of this nation look up to big brands like Nike and Adidas,” varsity football co-captain Dave DeSouza Lawrence said. “When Nike took this stance, it really showed that they want change in the community.”

Kaepernick was a National Football League (NFL) quarterback who played for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2017. In August 2016, Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice against African-Americans in the U.S., sparking controversy throughout the nation. Many fans applauded Kaepernick for using his platform to speak up for social justice issues. Others, however, believed kneeling during the national anthem was disrespectful to the American flag and the numerous veterans who have fought for our country. Consequently, Kaepernick has been a free agent since that incident, and the Nike advertisement featuring him has received heavy backlash as well.  

“Kaepernick is kneeling to raise awareness. He is not actually trying to disrespect anyone.” said sophomore Haadia Tanveer. “[Nike has] gotten political before. Not everyone is going to like what [Nike has] to say, and Nike knows that, but honestly, I’m not sure the company cares.”

On the contrary, others disagree with Kaepernick’s decision to kneel and are against Nike for releasing this ad. As a result, some are destroying their Nike apparel by burning their shoes or cutting off the Nike swoosh off of clothes. However, destroying Nike merchandise doesn’t have any direct effect on the company as the products have already been purchased. The people who do so are simply making a statement that they no longer support Nike.

The advertisement ends with Kaepernick encouraging people to follow his example, which is shown by the campaign’s tagline: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

“People have been giving that advice: Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. for quite a long time but it didn’t have a lot of political significance until they put it with Colin Kaepernick, who is very political,” Lawrence said.

Nike originally signed a deal with Kaepernick in 2011 and chose to maintain its partnership with him even after his controversy. Companies often terminate or choose not to renew endorsement deals with individuals if they perform questionable actions. Nonetheless, Nike chose to advocate for Kaepernick’s cause because their values aligned. Nike is not overstepping its boundaries by supporting an athlete, even if he is politically controversial, because the company is simply promoting itself as a sports brand.

“I think Nike can do whatever it wants. I don’t think there should be regulations on what Nike can do. It has a choice obviously,” said varsity football co-captain Zayhaan Batlivala. “The ad is really working well with the people it was targeted toward, but I can see why some people would be upset by a clothing company getting into politics.”

When choosing to publicize this ad, Nike risked receiving immense criticism. By supporting a controversial athlete, however, Nike has gained a lot of attention, which has caused an almost immediate spike in sales for the company. After the ad’s release, sales increased by 31 percent and Nike’s stock reached an all time high, which is at at $84.72 per unit as of Sept. 30. An Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) poll taken after the advertisement’s release revealed that 19 percent of the people surveyed would buy more Nike products, suggesting that Nike releasing this ad was a good marketing strategy, as people tend to value socially active companies.

“If the 30 percent surge in Nike sales showed anything, it’s that it galvanized the people who did already believe in Nike,” said physics teacher Thanh Nguyen, a Nike and NFL enthusiast. “A company being more socially active will make me more likely to buy from them. It’s not the sole reason, but it is a big factor for me.”

Lawrence echoed a similar sentiment.

“It’s really good that companies are trying to make a change instead of us trying to do it alone because each individual doesn’t have a very big voice,” Lawrence said. “A large corporation like Nike has an extremely large potential to change something.”

Since its sales have increased, employing a political ad campaign could be perceived as a skillful maneuver to increase sales, maintaining Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick. In the past couple of years, Nike has carried out numerous ad campaigns with political undertones, such as its Equality campaign featuring professional American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and signing a lifetime deal with National Basketball Association (NBA) star LeBron James, who is known for frequently speaking out on social and political matters.

Nike is rising above the stigma of being political as a sports brand, and its success should encourage other companies to follow its lead.

“[Supporting controversial athletes] normalizes them, rather than making them the enemy,” Nguyen said. “It tells their story on a wider platform. It gives their story power.”

By choosing to feature Kaepernick, Nike is participating in political conversation that it is fully justified to take part in. The company is following the common practices of a sports brand while supporting Kaepernick, and utilizing a political campaign as the background for its new advertisement was a clever move for Nike.

Nike should be commended for using its platform and power to speak out against racial injustice, as doing so inspires individuals and inspires changes.