If you are someone who wants to pump your fist about Nike’s big endorsement deal with Colin Kaepernick, try this on: It is probably an encouraging sign of the times that Kaepernick’s demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism have not made him toxic for marketing and public relations purposes, the way they almost certainly would’ve as recently as, say, 10 years ago. It is also good that Kaepernick is able to make a good living while being frozen out of his chosen profession.
But it would be silly to take the position that, by endorsing Kaepernick and featuring him in advertising, Nike has revealed itself to be good. No. Colin Kaepernick is good. Nike’s motivations are not moral at all. In fact, they’re at best rigidly and specifically amoral, and since they’re using a social movement to advance their sleazy business interests, you could make a reasonable case that Nike’s big “Just Do It” campaign is in fact bad. The culture war around NFL players demonstrating during anthem ceremonies serves Nike’s business purposes, because the established battle lines give people on either side social incentive to signal one another. Nike’s goal is to have its swoosh logo become the emblem of a movement, angling for a future where whole generations of people who identify with that movement use it as a lazy way of identifying themselves. Even the stupid burning of Nike gear by enraged morons helps this cause—you, a reasonable person who watched media dipshits do touchdown dances over one day’s worth of stock market performance, suddenly feel an urge to help make it so the bad guys don’t win. Better buy yourself a new Nike hat! That’ll show ‘em.
It should not surprise you at all to learn, via a behind-the-scenes New York Times report published Wednesday, that the real story of the now-famous “Just Do It” ad mostly involves Nike executives being dragged and pushed along by a combination of internal business concerns and external pressure from Kaepernick’s own lawyers. Savvy people inside Nike eventually reasoned that cutting ties with Kaepernick would be worse for the brand than sticking with him, and that leaning into the affiliation would earn Nike loyalty with generations of whatever percentage of broadly social justice-minded people choose to express solidarity via apparel choices. But that was after Nike came thisclose to dumping Kaepernick:
Knowing the 49ers were planning to cut him, Kaepernick opted out of his contract in the spring of 2017. When no other team signed him, Nike’s top marketing officials realized they had no idea what to do with him: He didn’t have a team, so they couldn’t put his name on any team gear.
Baffled, top executives in Nike’s sports marketing group decided to end the company’s contract with him, according to a former employee who requested anonymity because of a nondisclosure agreement.
This is where Nike’s head of communications swooped in and convinced his bosses to keep Kaepernick on the payroll, using the stirring argument that cutting ties would put Nike on the wrong side of a demographic breakdown and harm their popularity with consumers:
And Nike, along with most apparel companies, is desperate to attract urban youth who increasingly look up to Kaepernick; the largely white, older N.F.L. fans angry at the league over the protests are not a priority for those companies, analysts say.
That first decision, merely to keep Kaepernick on the payroll, was reportedly motivated by concern that Nike “would face backlash from the media and consumers if it was seen as siding with the NFL.” But that calculation only kept Nike from firing Kaepernick—it was the bare minimum, maintaining an awkward status quo in order to avoid angering the wrong people. Nike’s executives were reportedly content to keep Kaepernick on the payroll but hidden in a closet, until Kaepernick’s representatives began agitating for something more:
Earlier this year, Nike’s decision to keep him within its stable of sponsored athletes without using him had prompted lawyers for Kaepernick to tell the company it was not living up to its contractual obligations, according to two individuals involved in the discussions who requested anonymity because of the confidential nature of the talks.
We have still not gotten to the part where Nike was courageous or righteous or motivated by belief in anything other than cold business realities. Even having already made the decision to keep Kaepernick around, and even under pressure from Kaepernick’s lawyers to feature him in advertising, Nike still waffled over concerns over what such a move might mean for their relationship with the NFL, which is run by a bunch of shitheel turkeys doing their own cynical profit analyses. Here two factors appear to have pushed Nike toward featuring Kaepernick, in the absence of any backbone of their own: that Kaepernick was reportedly being recruited by Adidas; and that Nike’s enormous apparel deal with the NFL is set to scale back over the next decade:
The two sides announced a 10-year extension of the deal in March, but after 2020, Nike will only produce clothing worn on the field. It will no longer produce NFL merchandise sold to consumers. That meant the NFL, already a small slice of Nike’s business, was going to shrink further.
So we’ve got Nike making the decision to cut ties with Kaepernick, but being persuaded in the opposite direction by public relations concerns, legal threats, shifting sponsorship arrangements, competition, a hungry ad agency, and every other damn thing shy of—or possibly including—focus groups. This was less “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything,” and more “appear to believe in something, once you’ve made sure it won’t mean sacrificing much of anything.” It’s a helpful reminder that however inspirational a brand’s individual clients might be and whatever catchy slogans they come up with, the only thing brands ever really stand for is turning your money into their money.