Telling the truth about where you stand means taking big risks. It’s been worth it for Nike.
Written by Lee Schneider
When you think of Nike, you think of more than sneakers. Nike communicates capitalism to some, courage to others, and also controversy. The company has taken hits. Back in 1998, the company responded to reports that its overseas manufacturers used underage workers to make shoes. Nike promised a change in employment practices by its suppliers. Last year a reported eleven members of Nike’s senior management departed under a cloud of workplace harassment accusations. At least two former employees have sued the company, claiming a culture of sexual harassment and gender bias has thrived at Nike.
Given all that, it was a shock when Nike chose Colin Kaepernick as the face of one of their recent ad campaigns. He’s the guy who was the first to “take a knee” when the national anthem was played before football games. He sparked a movement to call attention to police violence against African-Americans. He drew hate for taking a stand by taking a knee. Nike risked a lot by featuring him. I thought it was brilliant.Nike didn't become a global leader by playing it safe. Click To Tweet
But there must have been a safer choice, right? Yes, there is always a safer choice, but Nike hasn’t become a global leader by playing it safe. It is an outlier in corporate America: A big company that takes big risks. But do risks like that pay off?
“Stick to Sports”
Vocal sports fans argued that the Kaepernick campaign was a stunt, perhaps a way to distract from the sexual harassment scandals at the company. Angry fans burned their Nike shoes, cut the Nike logos off their shirts, and posted the pictures on social media. They demanded that Nike stay out of the social justice discussion and “stick to sports.” Kaepernick’s critics have also long demanded that he stick to sports. An athlete shouldn’t express opinions they argued, especially political opinions. Stay out of the social justice business. Just shut up and play.
Back in the 1960s, the boxer Muhammad Ali protested the Vietnam War by refusing to register for the draft. Athlete-activists like Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar have spoken out against war, violence, and racism. LeBron James speaks out about racism and the Trump administration today. White sportswriters, then and now, have told them all to “stick to sports.” But Black super-star athletes are role models with high visibility. They have the right, even the obligation, to speak out for what they believe in, and support social movements that will cause positive change.
We’re living in a fantasy if we believe sports are not part of “real life.” Star athletes make a good kind of noise when they want to, attracting attention to issues. Brands ascend to prominence using star athletes. Nike with Steve Prefontaine and Michael Jordan. Adidas with many World Cup champions. Patagonia has their ambassadors. Professional sports are a serious business taking down billions of dollars a year. They are more than a diversion.
Athletes Do Not Sign Away Their First Amendment Rights
We’re kidding ourselves and being disrespectful to athletes to tell them to stay in their lane. Athletes do not sign away their First Amendment rights. When Nike made Kaepernick the face of its campaign the company put a spotlight on police violence against Black people and the Black Lives Matter movement. As more athletes joined Kaepernick in “taking a knee” during the national anthem, more fans were forced to consider the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is my country uber alles. Patriotism is I believe in my country and want it to be better. We know America can be better. Protest is patriotic.Protest is patriotic. Click To Tweet
Being an outlier and speaking from the heart is at the soil of the company. Read Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog and you’ll learn that the company started with these values. To this day it tries, sometimes struggles, to keep the rebel spirit alive. Above all, Nike is a company that was founded for athletes. It has boosted the career of many an African-American athlete, and many Black athletes have boosted the company by endorsing its shoes and clothing. There is synergy there. Backing Kaepernick shows how deeply Nike believes in athletes and their struggles on and off the playing field.
Values Are Stubborn and Stable
Now look, I’m biased. I wear Nikes every day. I think Nike’s clothes rival Patagonia’s for form and function. I’ve been running for thirty years and I’m here to tell you that many running shoes are shockingly similar. They all do what they are supposed to do. And their looks? Fashion is fleeting.You are what you fight for. #resist Click To Tweet
Values, though, are stubborn and stable. Values reveal you. You are what you fight for. Nike has declared that it will stand behind athletes forever. Athletes can have ideas, want social change, demand justice, and not just stick to sports. If you were an athlete, which brand would you buy? Even if you are a weekend warrior like me, you want to stand in shoes that come from people who stand for what they believe in. In this case, risk pays off.