COLUMN: Nike embraces Kaepernick, and it's genius


From left, San Francisco 49ers Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and Eric Reid (35) kneel during the national anthem before their NFL game against the Dallas Cowboys on Oct. 2, 2016, in Santa Clara, California. Tribune News Service Buy Photos

It’s been 976 days since Colin Kaepernick suited up for an NFL team. His appearance in Super Bowl XLVII was more than five years ago — 2,041 days to be precise.

Yet with Tuesday’s announcement that Kaepernick will be a face of Nike’s 30th anniversary campaign for the company’s “Just Do It” motto, the polarizing quarterback has been thrust back into public consciousness.

The trials and tribulations of Kaepernick’s football career and its downfall are well documented. After sitting for the National Anthem on Aug. 26, 2016, he continued his silent protest against the oppression of people of color and police brutality in the United States.

Since Kaepernick began his protests, entire teams, such as the Seattle Seahawks and Houston Texans, have taken on variations of his outspokenness by interlocking arms or not participating in the anthem ceremony at all.

But frankly, this column isn’t to discuss anthem protests. Rather, what I want to highlight is how a major corporation took a highly political figure and propelled him to the forefront of a major advertising campaign.

A piece in the New York Times on Tuesday by Kevin Draper, Julie Creswell and Sapna Maheshwari observed that this isn’t a new phenomenon for Nike.  

The apparel giant hasn’t been shy in promoting controversial figures. The story pointed to past ads in which Tiger Woods recounted how he’d been turned away from certain country clubs because of his skin color. 

Kaepernick is just the next athlete in this line.

History aside, the move is brilliant from a marketing perspective. As showman P.T. Barnum famously remarked: “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” And Kaepernick certainly generates publicity.  

He drives commentary about whatever product he’s associated with regardless of how people feel about his politics. 

Take’s report that in the 24 hours since the reveal Nike has received $43 million of free media coverage. Mr. Barnum, you may have a point.

Further, Nike’s target audience more logically aligns with Kaepernick’s advocates than his dissenters. Generally speaking, the most vocal detractors of the quarterback’s stance are the same purported patriots that support President Donald Trump’s tones of denigration and division. Kaepernick’s supporters, by contrast, tend to reject Trump’s criticisms and fall in line with who this campaign targets.

This is not to say it’s mutually exclusive to be a Trump supporter and a Kaepernick sympathizer. I simply mean that by using the contentious quarterback, Nike targets its message to a group that by-and-large skews anti-Trump.

Speaking of our commander-in-chief, he offered a few thoughts on the situation.

I’ll give Trump this: at least he’s consistent in berating the NFL and ragging it for the anthem protests that have persisted despite Kaepernick’s apparent black-balling from the league.

And though his tweet was naturally argumentative and attacking, Trump was surprisingly tolerant of Nike’s decision in an interview with The Daily Caller.

“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, but I personally am on a different side of it,” Trump said.

What Trump says here is what I think has been lost in the brouhaha regarding Kaepernick. 

First, from the protest standpoint, the right to do so is enumerated in the Constitution, and thus even if you don’t agree with one’s viewpoint, a level of respect is necessary. 

Second, on the business side, Nike is entitled to use whomever it wants to market products. Kaepernick has long been on Nike’s payroll – since 2011 to be exact – and the decision to use his face to sell products is just a larger step in publicizing someone Nike already pays to promote its apparel.

The crux of the Kaepernick saga, at least this portion of it, is directly in line with what Trump said in the Daily Caller interview. Nike can do whatever it feels is appropriate in promoting its products. If Nike wants to use a contentious figure, so be it.

The first of Kaepernick’s Nike commercials was leaked on his personal Twitter account Wednesday morning. Midway through the advertisement, the football-player-turned-social-justice-advocate poignantly asserts, “Don’t believe you have to be like anybody to be somebody.” 

In the vein of its newest spokesperson, Nike did exactly this. It did what no one else would do and gave Kaepernick a platform. 

Differently put – Nike just did it.

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