Nike wants to be on the right side of history with Colin Kaepernick ad, says U of T expert

Photo of Nike ad with Colin Kaepernick
A billboard featuring former San Francisco 49ers quaterback Colin Kaepernick is displayed on the roof of the Nike store in San Francisco, Calif. this week (photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
When news broke this week that Colin Kaepernick would become the new face of Nike’s Just Do It campaign, many were taken by surprise. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback stirred a national debate in the United States by kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest racial injustice and police brutality. The timing of the ad campaign, days before the first game of the NFL season on Thursday, is likely to stoke the controversy over pre-game protests.

Jelena Damjanovic asked Simon Darnell, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, for his take on what it all means for Kaepernick – and Nike. Darnell’s research interests include social movements and activism in sport, as well as sport, race and post-colonialism.

What’s your reaction to Colin Kaepernick becoming the new face of Nike’s Just Do It campaign?

I think this caught everyone by surprise, both supporters and critics of Kaepernick. One of the aspects of athlete activism that has become clear is that athletes who speak out often pay a price for doing so. In Kaepernick’s case, this has meant being ostracized from the NFL. Yet being featured in an advertising campaign by one of the biggest brands on the planet is not exactly punishment. In fact, the ad campaign makes specific reference to what Kaepernick has endured.

So it seems that one of the outcomes of this whole saga is that people (and companies) are starting to realize how difficult it can be for athlete activists to speak out, and they’re actually celebrating such sacrifices (and attempting to connect their brands to them). I think this in itself is an interesting development. 

Kaepernick has not been signed by any of the NFL’s 32 teams since the protests spread. Do you expect this decision by Nike will help turn the tide?

I don’t think that this new ad campaign will have much bearing on whether Kaepernick gets another job in the NFL or not. But I think that Kaepernick’s grievance against the league for colluding to keep him out, which is now going to a formal hearing, is a big deal, and one that will continue to keep the question of his unemployment under serious scrutiny. That high-profile NFL officials and owners might have to answer for this formally is fascinating, even though the proceedings will be private.

At the least, the question of how and why Kaepernick hasn’t played in the league since speaking out isn’t going away anytime soon.

By supporting Kaepernick, Nike has entered the political fray many sport brands might have avoided for fear of alienating some customers. What’s your take on this?

I’m not the first to draw these conclusions, but two things seem to be happening here: One is that Nike sees supporters of Kaepernick as a demographic to whom they want to appeal. They’ve likely made the business calculation that they will gain more customers than they will lose by supporting Kaepernick. It’s a reminder that successful brands tend to appeal to specific people or groups, and not necessarily the entire population.

Two is that Nike likely sees, as most people do, that peaceful activists who speak out on issues of justice and in support of oppressed people usually end up being seen favourably in the long term. Activists pay a price in the moment, but history looks well upon them. Nike wants to be on the right side of history here. 


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