The former NFL player who famously took a knee during the American anthem to protest racial injustice is the divisive choice for Nike's new ad campaign.

By Daniel Herborn

Posted on September 5, 2018

While some applauded Nike’s selection of the activist Kaepernick, others were outraged he was chosen and the hashtag #NikeBoycott was one of the trending topics on Twitter. Social media was briefly flooded with images of people cutting the Nike ‘swoosh’ out of their clothes and even setting their Nike products on fire.

Nike is the world’s most valuable apparel brand but its market cap fell around 4%, plummeting from around US$3.75 billion to US$127.82 billion in the wake of the news though it had recovered slightly at time of writing.

Whether the fall in share price is a temporary blip remains to be seen though ESPN journalist Justin Tinsley told NPR that the endorsement of Kaepernick would not hurt the company financially in the long term.

“You might see people burning their shoes on social media but it’s nothing that (Nike) need to be concerned about from a widespread angle,” Tinsley said.

Similarly, sports marketing executive Bob Dorfman told Bloomberg the signing of Kaepernick is commercially sound as it positions Nike as a risk-taker and leader. “It’s not a move that any company can make, but for Nike it’s definitely smart business,” Dorfman said.

Kaepernick, a 30-year-old quarterback, last played in the NFL in 2016 and was best known for ‘taking a knee’ during the anthem to protest racial inequality and police violence against black Americans. Polls on Kaepernick’s actions have produced mixed results; one poll concluded a majority of Americans think the football players should have a right to protest, but almost half of respondents thought players should find another way to express their views. The practice of kneeling during the anthem has been particularly unpopular among Trump voters and conservatives.

Colin Kaepernick has become a key player in the US ‘culture wars’

The issue of NFL players protesting the anthem has become one of the most high-profile and divisive stories in the US media. A number of players began protesting in 2016 but many have now stopped the practice. US President Donald Trump has been a vocal critic of the protesting players, at one point even suggesting they “shouldn’t be in the country”.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of colour,” Kaepernick said of his protests back in 2016. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

In an interview with The Daily Caller, Trump said Nike’s choice to use Kaepernick in its new campaign sent a “terrible message” and there was “no reason” for them to do it.

“I think as far as sending a message, I think it’s a terrible message and a message that shouldn’t be sent. There’s no reason for it.

However, Trump said Nike was free to endorse Kaepernick. “In another way, it is what this country is all about, that you have certain freedoms to do things that other people think you shouldn’t do, but I personally am on a different side of it.”

“As much as I disagree with the Colin Kaepernick endorsement, in another way — I mean, I wouldn’t have done it,” Trump said, though he added that Nike was a tenant of his.”They pay a lot of rent,” Trump said, in reference to Niketown New York which is located in his 6 East 57th Street property, though Nike will move that store next year.

Kaepernick’s protests have been a high-profile issue in the US

Kaepernick announced the new campaign with Nike in a tweet with the words: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt”. Other athletes featured in the campaign including tennis superstar Serena Williams, basketball icon LeBron James and Shaquem Griffin, an NFL rookie who has made it into the league despite having an amputated left hand.

Although Kaepernick has been out of the league since 2016, he has remained a Nike-sponsored athlete but this new campaign puts him front and centre of the footwear and apparel giant’s marketing for the first time. At one point, NFL team Seattle Seahawks offered him a tryout but cancelled it when he confirmed he would not stand for the anthem if he did make it onto the team. Analysis from data journalist site FiveThirtyEight suggested Kaepernick’s performances have been good enough to secure an NFL contract, suggesting teams are reluctant to sign him for political and PR reasons rather than a lack of ability.

In 2017, Kaepernick lodged a grievance against the NFL owners under its collective bargaining agreement, arguing they had colluded to exclude him from the league because of his political beliefs.