“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
These nine words, and their accompanying image, had social media in a frenzy on Labor Day. The viral image was the face of Colin Kaepernick, the free-agent NFL quarterback who led the national anthem protests. Nike announced that the athlete-activist, who hasn’t had a NFL job since March 2017, is the new spokesperson for the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” campaign.
The global brand will create a new signature shoe and apparel for Kaepernick as part of his newly renegotiated deal. Additionally, Nike will make substantial contributions to Kaepernick’s Know Your Rights foundation, which seeks to fight oppression and social injustice through education and activism.
As a sports marketing professional with brands such as the NBA, Dick’s Sporting Goods and my own consulting firm where I work with professional athletes, I understand Nike’s risk-and-reward scenario. The company, which has a deal with the NFL through 2028 as the league’s jersey and apparel outfitter, never dropped Kaepernick as a brand ambassador even as he made anthem protests during his time with the San Francisco 49ers. This hot-button issue has people on both sides of the coin and has turned into a political firestorm.
Does Nike stand to lose customers? Yes, as evident by the recent #BoycottNike backlash that includes people destroying their Nike gear and falling shares on the stock market. It definitely put its deal with the NFL in an interesting situation. However, Nike is likely gambling on the polarizing Kaepernick — who has been a voice in the black community — to drive loyalty and new customers back to its brand. Kaepernick has nearly six million followers across his social media platforms and has relationships with many influencers in black and brown communities.
Like I said, I understand the business behind Nike’s moves.
But more than just a professional, I’m a black man. Being a black man in this country comes with its own set of challenges and adversities. Growing up in Lexington, N.C., I remember being one of two black kids in my fourth grade class and neither of us getting invited to one of our white classmate’s birthday party because of our skin color. I remember being called the N-word on the football field by a predominately white team in Davidson County. I remember being pulled over at UNC Charlotte and asked to step out of the car and placed on the hood because driving in my black suv with tinted windows “looked like I was up to no good.”
For instances that involved Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and locally, Keith Scott, those injustices became deadly.
That’s what Kaepernick and others protested against and what critics have largely forgotten about in the political debates. Yes, it took place during the national anthem, but it’s never been about the flag. It’s about the unpatriotic way black and brown people have been treated in this country. The anthem was simply the platform.
The Greensboro sit-ins wouldn’t have had the same effect if the students remained in the colored section of Woolworth’s lunch counter. Rosa Parks wouldn’t have had the same impact if she sat in the back of the bus as usual. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others marching from Selma wouldn’t have had the same effect if they decided to march through their own neighborhoods.
Change takes disruption. Nike decided to be disruptors.
Gerard Littlejohn is a marketing, public relations and social responsibility professional. He’s the founder of Level One Agency, a public relations and social responsibility agency. Connect with him on Twitter or Instagram.