Nike’s Kaepernick partnership is a shrewd business move – and that matters

Colin Kaepernick’s new Nike ad appeared on social media Monday night, and within minutes his image, accompanied by the apparel company’s logo slogan, rocketed around the internet.

“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” the ad said. “Just Do It.”

In making the outspoken opponent of racialized police brutality the face of the 30th-anniversary reboot of their ground-breaking “Just Do It.” campaign, Nike confirms what we already knew about Kaepernick. The 30-year-old free agent quarterback’s fame transcends the NFL, and signing with a team won’t increase his profile or the reach of his message. His marketability and influence on consumers no longer depend on him earning a roster spot.

Still, the move marks an interesting shift in sports marketing tactics.

It’s one thing for LeBron James – untouchably powerful and already under contract – to make clear his presidential and racial politics. But Nike re-signing a player whose demonstrations against racism ignited a two-year controversy represents shows political neutrality is no longer a pre-requisite to endorsement deals.

Instead of launching a bland campaign aiming to placate MAGA-supporting sports fans, Nike sized up a controversial issue, chose a side and will seek to cultivate sales there. The move might turn out to be a cynical marketing stunt, but it’s still significant.

Nike partnered with Kaepernick knowing both parties would have to weather backlash. Anti-Kaepernick sports fans called for a Nike boycott, and some even posted social media videos of themselves destroying Nike gear with scissors and flames. And as those posts accumulated views Nike’s stock price fell nearly three percent per share, lending credence to the idea that crossing socially conservative sports fans hurts business.

Except that Nike’s biggest rival, Adidas, saw its share price dip 2.4 percent Tuesday, while Puma lost nearly two percent. Neither of those companies signed a stridently pro-Black brand ambassador over the weekend, a clue something besides Kaepernick’s politics drove those share price declines.

Either way, a one-day drop in stock value doesn’t dent a rare long-term strategy that considers, then dismisses, purchasing power of white conservatives in the running shoe market.

It’s a stark departure from the type of Nike partnership Michael Jordan typified at the dawn of the “Just Do It” era. Whether or not he actually said “Republicans buy shoes too” when refusing to endorse a Black democratic candidate for running against white conservative Jesse Helms, the phrase stuck because it embodied Jordan’s raceless and politically neutral approach to sports marketing.

Three decades later Nike and Kaepernick are acknowledging conservatives buy sneakers, but betting progressives and Kaepernick fans – who have kept his jersey in the top 40 best-sellers in the NFL – will buy even more.

The timing of the campaign’s launch lends the partnerhsip another layer of meaning. While Labour Day celebrates colour-blind solidarity among workers, Nike’s campaign elevates a player whose advocacy explicitly targets Black communities, amplifying his message just as the run-up to a new NFL season intensifies.

None of those facts are coincidental given Nike’s NFL apparel sponsorship and Kaepernick’s recent history with the league, where nearly 70 percent of players identify as Black. As Grand Valley State University sports history professor Louis Moore wrote in a recent essay for the scholarly publication Black Perspectives, “There is no NFL without Black Labor.”

But there is room to question whether Nike’s backing Kaepernick is more business move than philanthropic movement.

That U.S. president Donald Trump tempered his public criticism of the deal highlights the business conflicts at play. Last year Trump called NFL players who, like Kaepernick, demonstrate during the pre-game anthem “sons of bitches,” and Tuesday said Nike signing Kaepernick sends “a terrible message.”

But Trump also said Nike rents retail space in a building he owns, and made a rare concession that opinions besides his own matter.

“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,” he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Nike sports an inconsistent recent record on labour, inclusion and politics.

We last saw people defacing Nike gear in protest two years ago, during the company’s bitter conflict with U.S. 800-metre runner Boris Berian. When Berian chose a guaranteed salary from New Balance over a Nike contract fraught with pay reduction clauses, Nike sued to prevent him from competing. The lawsuit sidelined Berian and enraged the running community, several of whom started a #FreeBoris hashtag on social media. They also taped over Nike logos or dumped shoes in the trash to express disgust at a multinational corporation’s perceived bullying of a hard-working independent contractor.

The company also stood by boxer Manny Pacquiao after repeated homophobic comments, and dumped him only in 2016, after their original contract lapsed, his marketability had cratered, and he spouted one last anti-gay rant.

And last summer Nike CEO Phil Knight made his largest political donation ever — $500,000 to boost Republican Knute Buehler’s run for Oregon governor.

So to speculate that all of Nike is all-in on Kaepernick’s pro-Black platform oversimplifies the issue, and ignores the limits of corporate support for grassroots social movements. Nike’s conflicted record on labour and politics recalls Gil Scott-Heron’s admonition that “The Revolution will not go better with Coke.”

The company didn’t help Berian’s quest for job security in 2016, or respond quickly to an LGBT community Pacquiao offended in 2012. But they’ve witnessed the eventual vindication of once-controversial figures like Muhammad Ali, Jack Johnson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Signing Kaepernick appears to position Nike on the right side of both history and the issues the quarterback champions.

But they’re also betting the partnership puts them the lucrative side of the shoe business.

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