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Pairing of Nike and Kaepernick is as American as apple pie: Phillip Morris

September 5, 2018 GMT

Pairing of Nike and Kaepernick is as American as apple pie: Phillip Morris

CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Call it the curious case of Colin Kaepernick.

Some angry Americans have recently photographed themselves on social media burning Nike workout shoes or shredding running singlets or T-shirts that bear the company’s iconic swoosh symbol. The destruction of their own property is ironically a form of protest against Nike’s decision to use Kaepernick, a noted protestor, as a face of its newest advertisement campaign.

The ad campaign, which Kaepernick tweeted about Monday afternoon, features a black and white close-up of his face with the caption: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Two years ago this month, Kaepernick became a social lightening rod and the NFL’s most enduring concussion. He chose the last game of the 2016 pre-season to start kneeling during the national anthem as protest against what he views as racial injustice against minorities.

He said he began to take a knee to draw attention to the fatal shootings of several unarmed black men by police. Kaepernick has been out of work since the end of that season and is suing the NFL, claiming the league has colluded to prevent him from working.

As the NFL prepares to kick off its regular season this week, the question now rages whether Nike is a good corporate citizen by co-signing the player’s protest agenda and further amplifying his platform.

The answer depends mostly on where one stands on the legitimacy of Kaepernick and his use of the anthem in social protest. Those who abhor Kaepernick’s protest argue that by knelling during the anthem he disrespect the flag and those who served.

I was thinking about Nike’s business gamble Tuesday morning when I received a call from a friend who surprised me with his anger from the company’s decision to market Kaepernick.

“Of all people, why did they have to choose him?” my friend practically yelled.

“Because he still appears marketable” I responded.

“Nike didn’t become an iconic sportswear company by making impulsive mistakes,” I added.

“Yes, but the NFL is already going down in flames. Aren’t we polarized enough? It’s time that we move on beyond Kaepernick,” he sputtered.

To understand Nike’s gamble on Kaepernick, it probably helps to know a little about Phil Knight, Nike’s founder. I first became a huge fan of Knight in high school after taking up cross-country running as a freshman. Whenever I would come across articles about Knight in Runner’s World or business magazines, I would devour them, marveling at how he went from a startup company, selling running shoes out of the trunk of his car, to presiding over an empire that today grosses more than $30 billion in annual sales.

Knight has never been one to play it safe. Business geniuses and social disrupters rarely do. A passage from Shoe Dog, Knight’s 2016 best-selling memoir captured his essence – and perhaps Kapernick’s. For me, it encapsulates how the loneliness and pain routinely associated with the long-distance runner is often also the constant companions of business gurus and social justice mavericks.

“Few ideas are as crazy as my favorite thing, running. It’s hard. It’s painful. It’s risky. The rewards are few and far from guaranteed,” Knight wrote in the introduction to his book.

“When you run around an oval track, or down an empty road, you have no real destination. At least, none that can fully justify the effort. The act itself becomes the destination. It’s not just that there’s no finish line; it’s that you define the finish line,” Knight wrote.

What is the finish line with NFL protests? Where are NFL players and their supporters headed with the continued demonstrations on game days?

I believe that players should stand for the playing of the anthem. In this deeply polarized era, professional athletes have access to amplified platforms to convey a collective faith in America’s ability to continue to evolve toward a more perfect union. The search for common-ground is now desperately needed.

However, the critical issues that Kaepernick sought to illuminate must remain part of the national discourse. That’s why he remains relevant. Nike made a business decision. It will likely cause the company some short-term pain, with the potential for future gain. It will also land the company on the right side of history.

The pairing of Nike and Kaepernick is as American as apple pie.