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Nike’s ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick has reverberations in players’ battle with NFL

Sport360's Jay Asser explains the impact of Nike's ad campaign with Colin Kaepernick on the NFL and the issue of the national anthem protests.

Jay Asser 2018/09/05

Nike just did it. One of the biggest brands in the world inserted itself into one of the most divisive issues in America by making Colin Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary ‘Just Do It’ campaign.

The advertisement features the face of the unemployed quarterback in black and white, with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Kaepernick has yet to find a home on an NFL roster since 2016, when he began the movement of kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality against African Americans. He’s in the process of suing NFL owners for alleged collusion to blackball him from the league.

Needless to say, there’s a contentious relationship between Kaepernick and the NFL owners. By launching their campaign with Kaepernick, Nike haven’t just willingly involved themselves – they’ve actually picked a side.

And they haven’t done this as an independent third party either. Nike are heavily in business with the NFL after inking an apparel deal through 2028 which allows them to supply all 32 teams with uniforms that have the swoosh logo.

According to ESPN reports, the NFL weren’t aware Nike were coming out with the ad campaign, which means the company didn’t feel the need to get approval from the league before moving forward. That’s not an insignificant nugget, because it reveals Nike’s willingness to ruffle feathers in this situation.

Nike spokeswoman Sandra Carreon-John said: “Nike has a longstanding relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current NFL players and its marks. Colin is not currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”

Nike undoubtedly deserve credit for speaking up amidst the culture war. Kaepernick has plenty of supporters, but there also those who oppose what he stands for, even if they misconstrue the issues he’s fighting for.

By promoting Kaepernick, Nike are essentially alienating a chunk of potential customers – some of the same people who voted Donald Trump to be the President of the United States. Not exactly a minority group.

But there’s value in supporting a cause and providing a platform to an influential voice. It helps to further legitimise them because when money is involved, people who wouldn’t normally listen start to pay attention.

There’s more to this, of course, than Nike helping Kaepernick out of the goodness of their heart. Ultimately, Nike is a major business, and this decision is more about the bottom line than it is about altruism.

Kaepernick has actually been signed to Nike since 2011, but the company couldn’t figure out how to monetise him over the past two years after he fell out of the league.

They do now, and they’re taking advantage of it.

This is a chance for the company to increase their presence in the consumer world by transcending sports. Kaepernick made his name as a football player, but he became a household name by kneeling on the sidelines before games. He isn’t so much an athlete now as he is an icon.

And icons have followings, particularly among the younger generation and those who can most identify with them – in this case, people of colour. As mentioned, Trump’s voter base is massive, but so is the group Kaepernick is fighting for.

The wave of negativity that Nike has had to deal with over the past couple days – the burning of Nike products, the outrage on social media, the threats to boycott, etc. – will die down. People may follow through on their claims that they’ll never wear Nike products again, but this isn’t some up-and-coming company without an established consumer base. Nike will sleep just fine at night with the knowledge that some Joe Schmos are out on the brand.

When it comes to the NFL, Nike’s move is a significant win for the players. It shows the league’s owners that, in fact, the protesting by Kaepernick and others hasn’t been a blow to their businesses like they imagined. Does it go against the personal and political beliefs of many of the owners? Sure, but at the end of the day, as long as those same figures are stuffing their pockets, they won’t mind.

And the people who are set to boycott Nike over this were likely the same ones who were boycotting the NFL due to the national anthem protests. The league isn’t losing many of the customers that have stuck around, all while gaining an excuse to begin the mend with the Players Association.

Nike haven’t fired a shot across the bow, they’ve left a cannon ball-sized hole in the topic. It may just be the start of settling this tug of war.

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