Nike backs down after Kaepernick objects to shoe with slavery-era U.S. flag on it

Nike is pulling a tennis shoe adorned with a late-1700s edition of the U.S. flag after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick complained to the shoemaker about what he says is the symbol's link to slavery, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Shoemaker faces criticism after planned release of shoe featuring so-called Betsy Ross flag

Nike had planned to release this athletic shoe bearing the Betsy Ross-era flag on July 4, the national holiday. (Nike)

Nike is pulling a tennis shoe adorned with a Betsy Ross flag image after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick complained to the shoemaker about the racist undertones of the design, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The heel-area back of the shoe features has the early design of the U.S. flag, which has 13 white stars in a circle on it and is named after Ross, a Philadelphia upholsterer and flag-maker who died in 1836.

Citing unnamed sources familiar with the matter, the Journal said Kaepernick, a Nike endorser, told the company he and others found the flag symbol offensive because of its connection to slavery.

According to the Smithsonian museum, the flag was used from 1777 to 1795, well before slavery was abolished in 1865. Though less well known than the Confederate flag, the Betsy Ross flag has also been used by white supremacist groups.

The Air Max 1 USA shoe had already been sent to retailers to go on sale this week for the July 4 Independence Day holiday, the Journal said.

But after the former quarterback and current Nike pitchman spoke with the company, Nike changed its mind.

"Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag," a spokesperson for the company said.

The about-face is now drawing criticism of its own.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey lashed out at the company over Twitter, saying he is asking the state's Commerce Authority to withdraw all financial incentives for the company to locate there.

"Arizona's economy is doing just fine without Nike," Ducey said. "We don't need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation's history."

Nike has plans to construct a $185-million US plant in Goodyear that would employ more than 500 people.

So far, the outspoken Kaepernick has said little publicly about the unfolding story, but his roots with Nike run deep. Last year, the atlhetic-wear company made him the face of a new ad campaign, after his kneeling during pre-game playing of the U.S. anthem, to protest what he has called the oppression of blacks and people of colour, made him a lightning rod and ended his football career.

Nike linking up publicly with Kaepernick was also highly criticized in some quarters at the time, but in retrospect, the brand seems to have come out ahead for its progressive stance. Sales went up, as did the stock price.

Time will tell what happens this time, but at least one analyst says Nike is likely to once again turn this experience into a positive for the company.

"I think it's important to understand who Nike's core demographic is here," said Matt Powell, senior industry adviser at NPD Group. "They're really focused on teens and looking at the commentary on Twitter and so forth, I don't see a lot of teens coming out with a negative attitude here."

Scott Stratten, president and founder of Unmarketing, said Nike is no stranger to taking a stance with its messaging, and he was surprised that the promotion got as far as it did.

"I'm not sure exactly what they were thinking," he said in an interview. "You have to be very aware of where symbols are being used in today's day and age."

Stratten notes that part of the problem with the flag isn't the flag itself but what it has come to represent, since it has been adopted  by some white supremacist groups.

With files from the CBC's Meegan Read, and Reuters


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