With new Kaepernick campaign, Nike makes big bet on black athletes — and their causes

The target market for the athletic gear company's latest ad campaigns doesn't find the mix of message and commerce to be controversial.

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 03:  NFL player Colin Kaepernick speaks onstage during VH1's 3rd Annual "Dear Mama: A Love Letter To Moms" - Inside Show  at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on May 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 03: NFL player Colin Kaepernick speaks onstage during VH1's 3rd Annual "Dear Mama: A Love Letter To Moms" - Inside Show at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on May 3, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)

The symbolism of Nike’s latest “Just Do It” campaign is undeniable and unmistakable: The Seattle-based shoe conglomerate is linking its business future arm-in-arm with black athletes who unapologetically leverage their fame for social justice activism.

Over the weekend, Nike announced it was building a celebratory advertising campaign around former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who hasn’t played in a professional football game since 2016 and is currently suing NFL owners for what he claims is an act of collusion to keep him from playing in the league.

After Kaepernick announced the ad campaign on his Twitter account, ESPN’s Darren Rovell confirmed that Nike, which put Kaepernick on its endorsement team in 2011 and had kept him under contract ever since, was building a fresh set of advertisements featuring the “Just Do It” tagline and a message that says: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”


By tapping Kaepernick, Nike is offering a clear statement supporting the controversial athlete’s efforts to draw attention to racial injustice and, specifically, police brutality directed primarily at African Americans. Obviously, the company’s executives believe that sharing the spotlight with Kaepernick is good for business. In effect, Nike is making a bet that its marketing strategy will ultimately reveal the simple-mindedness of those critics, currently burning their own shoes in protest, who erroneously argue that Kaepernick is unpatriotic for refusing to stand during the pregame playing of the National Anthem. 

“We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward,” Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand for North America, told ESPN.

Kaepernick is only one among a growing roster of athletes-turned-social activists on the Nike payroll. And, Nike executives are well aware that they’re not risking much at all by promoting social justice along with new colorways in its gym shoes and athletic gear.

In fact, the Kaepernick/Nike decision brings into sharp focus the confluence of black athletes as social-cause avatars, pop culture’s influence on politics, and big business’ capitalization on youthful, cultural activism.

As Fisanotti explained to ESPN, the new Nike ads are specifically targeted to 15- to 17-year-old Nike consumers. And while he left it unsaid, it’s nevertheless certain that this new round of ads are centered on black, urban, and non-traditional consumer markets, as reflected the choice of athletes — Odell Beckham Jr., Shaquem Griffin, Lacey Baker, Serena Williams, LeBron James and Kaepernick — all of whom were chosen for the company’s 30th anniversary campaign.

Nike knows exactly what it’s doing and what is at stake, having already observed the way the public reacts to high-profile superstars like Williams and James when they take controversial or political stands. For the most part, these reactions have done little to no harm to the athletes’ standing with their loyal fans.  In fact, in some instances, these athletes have earned support from people who have only a passing interest in sports but are nevertheless attracted to causes, such as women’s rights or criminal justice reform, embraced by some of the sporting world’s most prominent celebrities.

After officials at the French Open tennis tournament recently forbade Williams from wearing the black catsuit that she wore during this year’s tournament, some of Williams’ fans argued the ban wouldn’t have been made against a white athlete.


Nike expressed its displeasure, as one commentator noted, “in the best way possible short of extending a giant middle finger.” The company sent out a poster of Williams in the Nike-designed outfit with the message, “You can take the superhero out of her costume, but you can never take away her superpowers.”

Still, the Nike decision to support Kaepernick is all the more surprising because the shoe company signed a deal in March with the NFL to extend their longtime partnership for game apparel until 2028.

NFL executives, who apparently weren’t given prior notice about the upcoming adverting campaign, were slow to comment on the Nike advertising campaign, leaving observers suspicious that NFL brass weren’t terribly pleased by the timing of Nike’s announcement, which came days before the kick-off of the 2018-19 regular season. What’s more, Kaepernick won a significant legal victory last week when an arbitrator in his suit against the league ruled that the case should advance, setting up another season of off-field disputes that threaten to overshadow the game.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the league weighed in with a statement from executive vice president of communications and public affairs Jocelyn Moore, which strove mightily to be as innocuous as possible:

The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.

Anyone who has followed the tenor of Nike’s ad campaigns closely shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, the company has a history of using ads to take stands on social justice issues. Just last year, one Nike campaign called for an end to racial discrimination during February’s Black History Month observances, proclaiming “equality has no boundaries” in a video featuring James, Williams, Golden State Warrior star Kevin Durant, and other popular athletes. At the time, Nike said those ads had been created to “inspire people to act and press for lasting change in their communities.”

The new Kaepernick campaign is just doing it — again.