To commemorate Nike’s 30th anniversary of its iconic “Just do it” campaign, the sportswear goliath on Monday released a series of striking black-and-white ads featuring tennis champion Serena Williams, pro-skateboarder Lacey Baker, and NFL wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. Its most controversial placard, though, was a close-up image of former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick overlaid with the message: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Then, two days later, it released an ad expounding on that sentiment, with Kaepernick narrating a montage of athletes who had overcome daunting odds to achieve success.
From the outset, the reaction to Kaepernick’s involvement with the campaign was explosive and unifying in all the ways that have come to define the parameters of reaction culture, online and off. Fissures split along ideological lines: there were people rightly fired up that a major corporation took a stand, however faintly, on such a palpably political issue. The hashtags #ImWithNike and #ImWithKap (or #ImWithKaep) expressed justifiable savor many supporters found in the brand’s devotion to Kaepernick’s crusade; celebrities like Ava DuVernay, Diddy, and Michael Kelly offered vocal shows of encouragement. Fueled by a kind of obtuse logic, there was also a noticeable mix of veterans and conservatives who called for a boycott of Nike apparel or posted videos of burning shoes. (Twitter being Twitter, these posts immediately set off a wave of comic re-enactments.)
Outspoken athletes have long been central to Nike’s corporate DNA. In its decades-long lifestylization of sports, they’ve teamed with controversy-courters like Andre Agassi and Michael Jordan—each of whom flouted their sport’s dress codes, with Nike’s help—firebrands like John McEnroe, and anchored their future to politically active and increasingly candid athletes such as LeBron James, who has readily shared his distaste for the president and who, this summer, opened a public school for underprivileged kids in his hometown of Akron. (It provides free meals and bicycles to students and guarantees a free tuition to the University of Akron for all graduates, among other stipulations.)
Nike’s teaming with Kaepernick, however, is of a new order; it translates as a strategic gamble—yesterday’s 3 percent dip in share prices will likely pale in comparison to the historic gains—but also as a patently unsafe one for a company that often hews toward universally safe moves (Even Nike’s beautifully-executed “Equality” campaign had a bit of an #AllLivesMatter veneer to it). Ours is a time of violent partisan disunity—and major brands electing to take a position feels like a natural, if necessary evolution.
There's little mystery that social awareness has become a form of cultural capital for companies. Where once we ridiculed brands for saying "bae," now we interrogate their ideological stances to divine whether they're proof of evolved thinking or cynical, performative gestures. Being “woke” is itself a kind of currency, and often, to outsiders, a creed worth buying into. Not to say that Nike’s intentions were carried out in bad faith, but the house that Phil Knight built is, if nothing else, a savvy corporate empire. However, even if the message itself doesn’t get into specifics— “Believe in something” could mean anything—Kaepernick’s face alone conjures the paradox of the American promise that he fought to bring into the light.
Of course, there’s a complicated gravity to all of this. According to ESPN, Nike first signed Kaepernick to its endorsement roster in 2011, an agreement which never ended. Meanwhile, in March, the brand extended its deal with the NFL to remain the league’s official partner until 2028. The two poles seem to have no twain: The NFL, in response to player dissent last season and for the first time in its complicated history, instituted a mandate in May that now requires players to stand for the anthem or otherwise stay in the locker room. This knotting of sports culture, politics, and business is not unusual for our time, but it offers an important lesson if we choose to see it for what it is: moral centering in a time of moral decentering.
The country’s false narrative of progress was as evident as it was disgraceful in the view of Kaepernick, his teammate Eric Reid, and the players who joined along in silent condemnation during the 2016 season, triggering a wave of on-field protests. Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, he told reporters at the time, was in response to the fang of American racism—particularly incidents of increasing police brutality against black citizens, which were being recorded and distributed with routine outcry and a routine lack of reprimand.
For decades, the NFL excised politics from the game to protect the piety of its brand, but Kaepernick proved to be the ultimate antidote. Though he was later shunned from the league—for which he has taken team owners to arbitration, accusing them with collusion—it could now no longer afford to avoid the conversation. Amid the fury of yesterday’s news cycle, the NFL issued a statement, a portion of which read: “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”
It’s easy to be distrustful of Nike’s partnership with Kaepernick, with what can feel like an abrupt pivot to political advertising. What’s harder is to hope, even believe, that Nike really understands the matters at hand. That perhaps, even as the company is sullied by negligent labor practices and ongoing accusations of gender discrimination—issues one would expect Kaepernick to be privy to, and concerned about—the company is not attempting to co-opt cool or capitalize on a larger trend toward social justice awareness, but simply trying to be better than it has been in the past.
It’s the choice of integrity over prestige. Of character over championships. It’s less a matter of exploiting our growing divisions and instead about aligning with virtue over political correctness, over civility. Kaepernick—like Muhammad Ali and Arthur Ashe before him, who used their platforms to bring attention to black civil rights issues at a grave cost to their own professional success—represents an evolution in the business of sports, a shift in the discourse for Fortune 500 companies that can sustain real impact, nationally and globally, even as Nike, far from perfect, grapples with its own internal reckoning.
Times continue to change, and so must the role of the athlete and the companies that back them. It can no longer just be about how much one wins; it must too be about what someone like Colin Kaepernick or LeBron James or Serena Williams believes in beyond the game. Nike recognizes that, even if they didn’t generate the sentiment. Sports, we’re told, are about transcendence. About representing an ideal bigger than one single player, team, or city. Perhaps with Kaepernick that can finally be true.