Few companies have tailored their image to a broad audience more carefully than Nike. From NBA greats Michael Jordan and LeBron James to soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo to tennis great Serena Williams, Nike has used mainstream sports superstars to instill the idea that if you “Just Do It” you can achieve anything.
All of which makes their choice of the marginalized, controversial and deeply divisive Colin Kaepernick as the face of their new “Just Do It” marketing blitz bewildering. He is not in sports at all, after a brief NFL career in which he was never a star. Most of his fame outside NFL football junkies accrued when he decided to kneel during the National Anthem before games to protest perceived police violence against blacks — climbing on the shoulders of Black Lives Matter, another divisive group.
Kaepernick’s career was already sliding downward after just one good year, and it dropped off the edge due to his polarizing activism, his lack of being a good talent fit for many teams, and his being distracted by the controversy he created. For the limited value he brought, the circus he also brought was not worth it.
This was a similar dynamic with Tim Tebow — a Bible-believing, mainstream Christian who was also divisive and controversial with his overt, on-field and off-field Christianity and who was never going to be the face of a Nike campaign blitz. Not a bad decision, as he did not fit their successful Jordan-James-Ronaldo formula — but in the same way Kaepernick does not fit it.
Whatever the drawbacks of Tebow, Kaepernick is ten-fold. Which makes it a perplexing business decision; less so a social justice statement.
The only real business explanation is one that Ben Shapiro puts forward: Nike is trolling Trump and conservatives to create a bunch of free publicity (yes, I get the irony) and increase sales, particularly to blacks who buy Nikes at a much higher percentage than whites — but still smaller raw numbers. If that is the business reason, it is likely they have badly misjudged how broadly unpopular Kaepernick is in the mainstream culture, particularly with sports fans — an obvious target market for Nike.
The day following the announcement and the vacuous and clearly inaccurate promo statement under the retired millionaire’s picture — “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” — the stock valuation of Nike plummeted by $4 billion. That is wildly outside the normal trade range and a direct market response to their decision. And in fact, while it gained back about half a billion of that, the price has now stayed steady at the lower level. Nike is a less valuable company today than it was Monday.
The non-business decision is that Nike, like the NFL, is run not just by social justice-sensitive progressives, but by social justice-sensitive progressives bubbled away in elite and out-of-touch circles, where they all agree over Russian Caviar with Gourmandises Blini that cops are racists, Trump voters are racists, NFL fans outside the luxury skybox are icky and social justice is an important cause célèbre — just not, you know, in their guarded, gated neighborhoods.
The degree to which the progressive elites misunderstand middle America can hardly be overstated. Nike head honchos watched ESPN go full social justice lefty and their ratings tank. They watched CNN do the same and lose one-quarter of its audience in 12 months. They watched the NFL ratings plummet by standing weakly by and allowing a social justice takeover.
Yet they still invited this into their company voluntarily. This Nike example, following on last year’s flaming controversy that centered around Kaepernick, probably illustrates the disconnected nature as well as any.
Nike’s decision just emptied a tank of gasoline on the formerly smoldering burn pile. The NFL had hoped it was moving beyond it. But thanks to Nike’s decision with the toxic Kaepernick — again, just head-shaking that Nike would do this — even the spaghetti-spined, craven NFL had to issue a squishy non-statement statement.
“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities,” NFL Executive Vice President of Milquetoast Blather Jocelyn Moore said in a statement.
But here’s the problem. Nike is the NFL’s single biggest business partner (outside perhaps the television networks.) Nike and the NFL have a 10-year contract in place, through 2028, in which the shoe company supplies game-day uniforms to all 32 franchises, a really popular promotion among fans. (Or was. We’ll see how this plays out week after week.) Nike’s iconic swoosh is all over NFL games. And Nike uses the NFL logo prominently in its promotions — including the Kaepernick fiasco.
That means the kneeling controversy burn pile is overnight back to licking flames into the sky — just days before tonight’s kickoff of opening day. Maybe Nike will air their Kaepernick ad during NFL games. That should work great!
Perhaps feckless NFL management and in-your-face Nike kind of deserve each other. American deserves better.
Rod Thomson is an author, TV talking head and former journalist, and is Founder of The Revolutionary Act. Rod is co-host of Right Talk America With Julio and Rod on the Salem Radio Network.
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