Nike, Kaepernick subvert Trump’s weaponizing of professional sports

Illustration by Mckenzie Bunting
Illustration by Mckenzie Bunting


Zachary Joachim 
Executive Editor

“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Nike set the sports world ablaze with its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” ad campaign, featuring the already-iconic slogan and narration by NFL free agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

The words, emblazoned across Kaepernick’s face on posters and ringing through television sets and smartphones across the country, refer to the maligned quarterback’s willingness to sacrifice his career for his beliefs. Kaepernick has been blackballed by NFL owners since kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and systemic oppression against people of color.

Kaepernick charged in federal court that the NFL conspired to prevent him from signing to a team, an allegation the NFL denies. On Aug. 28, an arbitrator denied the NFL’s request to dismiss the claim. A hearing is expected before the end of the year.

Through the ad campaign, Kaepernick and Nike are seeking to lead the conversation hovering over the professional sports landscape from its currently divisive place to an inclusive and unifying one. Although this marriage between civil rights protest and capitalism is somewhat uncomfortable, the effect has proven wildly successful, particularly from a business standpoint.   

A disclaimer is necessary before we unpack this artfully audacious marketing strategy — I am white. I believe vociferously in Kaepernick’s original message as well as his right to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a right that my father served 35 years in the Navy to defend. But I will avoid that debate in this article because my privilege leaves my voice no agency to discuss the subject.

Across social media platforms, negative reactions to the ad received the most attention — if you haven’t seen the videos of burning Nikes, you live under a rock. But if you think this isn’t exactly what Nike intended, you don’t have a very firm grasp on the currently tempestuous relationship between sports and politics. Or you’re in denial, like our president Donald Trump who took to Twitter  — as usual — to bash Nike.

“Just like the NFL, whose ratings have gone WAY DOWN, Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?” Trump tweeted Sept. 5. “As far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”   

Trump, who practically invented using negative coverage to serve a personal agenda, weaponized professional sports to divide our country. He has manipulated public perception of Kaepernick’s protest to the point that NFL owners felt the need to ostracize Kaepernick in order to placate the conservative portion of their fanbase. The president is, to an extent, right when he says NFL ratings have taken a hit. But Nike and Kaepernick are laughing all the way to the bank, beating Trump at his own game.

According to data science and marketing technology company 4C, mentions of and comments about Nike rose 1,678 percent immediately after the ad was released. Mentions of Kaepernick skyrocketed 362,280 percent. As reported by CBS News and Huffington Post, Nike’s market value has spiked by nearly $6 billion since the sportswear giant released the controversial ad. In recent weeks, Nike’s shares have been performing at an “all-time high,” according to CBS. Last week, Reuters reported the company has sold out 61 percent more merchandise since the Kaepernick ad.

Nike’s most-engaged audience profile is “Made It and Know It,” 4C Chief Marketing Officer Aaron Goldman told MarketWatch. “Made It and Know It” is one of 70 consumer categories identified by 4C through analyzing social media platforms. These people are successful in their careers and personal lives, and tend to allocate money to entertainment, travel and online streaming. Goldman noted why Nike would target “Made It and Know It” through its new ad campaign.

“Racial equality is a top concern for this audience, along with causes like clean water access and gun control,” Goldman said to MarketWatch.

Well, bravo, Nike. Yay capitalism?   

“It’s all unfolding like a well-laid script,” said Jason Gay of The Wall Street Journal in his article titled “Colin Kaepernick and Nike, Starring You and Me.” “Nike’s marketing team must be sitting in the rafters like a playwright opening night.”

I know what you’re thinking -— it makes me a little uncomfortable too. Nike is monetizing Kaepernick’s civil rights protest. But hey…capitalism, right? The company is fighting Trump’s fire with an inferno of plausibly disingenuous marketing genius. What’s important is that Kaepernick, who has been with the company since 2011, signed off on it.    

“We must confront systemic oppression as a doctor would a disease,” Kaepernick said at the ACLU of Southern California’s 2017 Bill of Rights Dinner. “You identify it, you call it out, you treat it and you defeat it.”

Although the ad encompasses a wider range of identities and issues than Kaepernick’s original protest, the core of his message persists.

“Be bigger than basketball,” Kaepernick says. His words repose with a clip of LeBron James speaking in front of his “I Promise” school, an elementary school in James’ hometown of Akron, Ohio aimed at aiding at-risk youth.

James’ school is directly focused on ending the cycle of systematic oppression that Kaepernick originally set out to combat. Through the inclusive ad, Kaepernick extends an olive branch to you and me. It’s not quite “love trumps hate,” but that’s the idea.

Nike and the now-iconic Kaepernick are urging the country to band together beneath the shadow that is the White House. They are subverting Trump’s continued efforts to politically manipulate stakeholders in professional sports simply because they know what anybody who loves sports knows in their hearts — sports will never be divisive. Sports are inherently quite the opposite; they are a force of inclusion with the power to bring people of all identities together. An “agent of change,” to use the words of our Online Editor Kayleigh Fitzpatrick, a transgender woman inspired by the ad.    

Nike has a history of confronting systemic oppression with its ad campaigns. In 1995, the multinational corporation used “Just Do It” to focus attention on women’s rights in sports. The same year, Nike featured Ric Munoz — an HIV-positive marathon runner — in an ad. Nike makes billions of dollars off these causes, but it also invaluably contributes to the conversation surrounding them. The ethical implications of this somewhat uncomfortable marriage between capitalism and civil rights are a conversation for another day.

For now, be inspired. Love trumps hate — let sports be the source of what they truly are. Love, not hate. Just Do It.

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