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Tina Casey headshot

With Kaepernick Campaign, Nike Just Took a Calculated Risk

By Tina Casey

The Oregon-based athletic wear company Nike blew up the Intertubes Monday night with a new campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick as the new face of its iconic “Just Do It” campaign. Talk about brands taking stands! Mr. Kaepernick had been widely regarded as one America’s most promising professional football players, but the National Football League has, in effect, boycotted him since 2016, when he kicked off a series of high visibility protests to draw attention to the killing of African-Americans by law enforcement officers.

The Kaepernick Protests

Before we get to the new Nike campaign, a brief clarification of the protest is in order.

Mr. Kaepernick first began declining to stand for the National Anthem during preseason games in 2016, after the Black Lives Matter movement began highlighting the absence of consequences for police officers who kill civilians of color.

He explained his motivation in an August 27, 2016 interview with NFL.com:

"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. "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.”


He said that he has discussed his feelings with his family and, after months of witnessing some of the civil unrest in the U.S., decided to be more active and involved in rights for black people. Kaepernick, who is biracial, was adopted and raised by white parents and siblings.

In other words, Kaepernick was not protesting the National Anthem, the flag, or law enforcement officers in general.

At one point, Kaepernick jersey was the top selling shirt amongst all NFL players. More recently, he was named an Amnesty International Ambassador of Conscience earlier this year, which provided him with a broader platform to flesh out his thoughts:

“It was James Baldwin who said, to be Black in America, “and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” My question is, why aren’t all people? How can you stand for the national anthem of a nation that preaches and propagates, “freedom and justice for all,” that is so unjust to so many of the people living there? How can you not be in rage when you know that you are always at risk of death in the streets or enslavement in the prison system? How can you willingly be blind to the truth of systemic racialized injustice?”

Kaepernick protest, which may have been partly inspired by a similar action by players in the National Basketball League, spread through the NFL during the 2016 regular season and on into this year’s pregame matches.

Just Do It: The Nike Campaign

Interestingly, Nike first signed Kaepernick before he became the face of protest. That contract was set to expire recently. At that point Nike could have quietly set aside the relationship. Instead, the company chose to re-up the deal and position Kaepernick to lead the company’s celebration of the 30-year history of the Just Do It campaign on multiple platforms.

The deal also commits Nike to contributing to Kaepernick's Know Your Rights Camp philanthropy. The organization educates youth on interacting with law enforcement and supports self-empowerment and community building.

When news of the new Just Do It campaign hit the Internet on Monday, the backlash began almost instantly.

Here’s a safe-for-work sample from country music singer John Rich (aka Big & Rich):

Rich later added…. “our soundman just cut the Nike swoosh off his socks. Former marine. Get ready @Nike multiply that by the millions,” he tweeted out:



Rich wasn’t the only one taking up the idea that cutting off the Nike “swoosh” logo is an act of protest against the company. Within hours, the  Internet was flooded with calls for a Nike boycott, punctuated by photos of people destroying their own Nike products with scissors, fire and anything else at hand.

Brands Taking Stands

In a coincidence of timing, TriplePundit has been following boycotts since the fall of 2016, when Shannon Coulter’s successful #grabyourwallet boycott campaign focused attention on businesses owned by President Trump and his family.

In a related thread, a number of companies have begun to fill the civic leadership vacuum by taking stands against President’s Trump policies.

One recent example is the Dick’s Sporting Goods chain, which imposed its own restrictions on gun sales in the aftermath of the massacre of 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Nike has pushed the envelope even farther, by joining one of retail’s best known slogans with an influential social activist.

Though the NFL has established a new rule prohibiting on-field demonstrations, the protest may continue in some other form throughout the season, partly fueled by the launch of the new Kaepernick campaign.

When Boycotts Work: A Calculated Risk

Over the past two years of boycotts, a clear pattern has emerged: consumer boycotts are incredibly difficult to sustain, but they can impact a brand that is already in decline.

On the positive side, spurious calls for boycotts can spark a backlash that winds up benefitting the target.

After Dick’s announced its new gun policy last spring there were widespread calls for a boycott, but instead the company experienced a surge in store traffic, which has been attributed to new and returning customers showing support for the company’s position.

Nike may have had that calculation in mind when it opted to launch the Kaepernick campaign.

The company has seen sales of its Jordan brand dip in recent years, and it has been fending off a challenge in the US market from Adidas.

Overall, though, the company is in good shape for healthy growth. Nike is already the official outfitter for the NFL and the NBA (I know, right!), and earlier this year the company positioned itself to challenge Adidas’s grip on soccer branding.

It’s too early to tell if the nascent Nike boycott will have any impact on the company’s bottom line. Judging from the past two years of boycotts, a good guess is that the Kaepernick campaign will reward the company with a powerful new global message that attracts many more consumers than it repels.

In any case, there aren’t many other options. Top brands like Adidas and Reebok have been cementing a human rights record throughout their supply chains, and Nike’s bold move could motivate them to identify themselves as change agents with a broader brush.

Consolidation of athletic brand ownership is also working against the boycotters.

Some former Nike fans are already turning to Converse for an alternative, but they won’t find much relief in that quarter — since 2003, Converse has been a Nike brand.

Photo credit: kaepernick7.com

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey