Saskatchewan·Opinion

Nike aligns itself with Kaepernick, free speech

"I believe that Nike as a company is fine with drawing a line in the sand. They're saying they're aligned with Kaepernick and what he stands for. If you're not, they don't want the money you'll spend on future sportswear purchases anyway."
Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem prior to the game against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi's Stadium on October 2, 2016 in Santa Clara, Calif. (Thearon W. Henderson/ Getty Images)

If you're a sports fan or a sneakerhead — I am both — your phone and social media likely lit up Monday evening when the news of Nike signing a new, multi-year sponsorship deal with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick broke. Mine sure did. 

Kaepernick is controversial. His kneeling during the pre-game U.S. national anthem, which began in 2016 as an act of silent protest against racial inequality and police brutality, sparked a movement among NFL players that was met with opposition from the NFL, the majority of its owners, and many Americans who deemed the protest unpatriotic – the most famous being U.S. President Donald Trump. 

Kaepernick hasn't played a down of NFL football since that 2016 season and yet the movement persists. NFL players and personnel continued to kneel last season. 

Now Nike has aligned itself with Kaepernick. The company is marking the 30th anniversary of its iconic "Just Do It" marketing tagline and feels Kaepernick embodies the mantra.

Yesterday afternoon, Kaepernick set his new Nike endorsement in motion with a tweet that, at time of this writing, has been liked more than 684,000 times and retweeted more than 280,000 times.

Opponents of Kaepernick were swift to take to social media as well. This morning, my Twitter feed was filled with posts and news about people burning or cutting their Nike products in protest of the new Kaepernick campaign. A tweet of a pair of Nike shoes lit on fire has been liked more than 49,000 times and retweeted more than 21,000 times. 

What does this all mean? For me, it doesn't really come as a surprise. I'm reminded of an iconic Nike endorsement from my childhood that helped to catapult a rookie NBA player (and his shoes) into the national spotlight. You might have heard of him: Michael Jordan. 

The year was 1984. At the time, the NBA had a strict policy that players must wear shoes that are either primarily white or primarily black. Nike made shoes that were about half black and half red, so they didn't abide by the shoe colour rules. These shoes – called Air Jordans – were banned by the league. Every time Jordan wore them in a game, he was fined. 

Local "sneaker head" Allan Pulga talks to Zarqa Nawaz about Nike's decision to align itself with Colin Kaepernick and what this means for free speech in the sporting world. 8:44

The fines increased their notoriety and — by extension — the demand for them in the marketplace. The shoes sold like hot cakes. Today, they're known as the "Banned" Air Jordan 1. They are the stuff of sneakerhead legend.

With the Banned Air Jordan 1, Nike and Jordan weren't taking a stand on racial or political grounds. But they took a risk in the interest of promoting self-expression. I'd expand it to say they were promoting freedom of speech. 

By bucking convention, they increased the cachet of the product and the athlete. It certainly didn't hurt that Jordan went on to win NBA Rookie of the Year that season and eventually become who many consider to be the greatest player in league history. 

Michael Jordan's signature shoe line was against the rules when it first came out. (Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images)

I'll admit, I pay a lot more attention to sneaker brands and sneaker marketing than the average person. I grew up playing sports and I looked up to professional athletes as role models. For many sneakerheads like me, a love of athletic footwear began with a desire to wear the most original designs and the best performance technology, and also to emulate the greats that endorsed a given model of shoe. 

Over time, a sneakerhead develops a loyalty to a brand or an athlete because of what they stand for. That's certainly been the case for me and how I feel about Nike and Michael Jordan. 

I don't think Nike is fretting over the consumers who are burning their Nike shoes or clothing. I saw a few funny tweet replies saying, "Nike doesn't care if you burn those shoes; you already paid for them. Nike got your money already." 

That's true, but beyond the futility of the act, I believe that Nike as a company is fine with drawing a line in the sand. They're saying they're aligned with Kaepernick and what he stands for. If you're not, they don't want the money you'll spend on future sportswear purchases anyway.

Sports have long been used as a platform for the U.S. civil rights movement. I think of athletes like Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, or another NFL player activist named Jim Brown. I also think of John Carlos and Tommie Smith standing on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, holding their fists in the air in defiance. All these people took risks in the name of a cause they believed in. 

Colin Kaepernick took a similar risk, one that many  – myself included – believe has cost him his job as an NFL quarterback. 

The caption of the current Nike-Kaepernick campaign reads, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything." It sounds messianic, as though heralding a martyr. 

I think it's on purpose.

About the Author

Allan Pulga is Regina-based PR and communications consultant with a healthy appetite – for food and sneakers. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @poonisms.