The decision by Nike to make former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick the lead athlete to promote the company’s 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” marketing campaign is rooted in its progressive corporate culture.
Nike is one of the many corporations that believe in so-called “conscious capitalism,” where its social impact is as important as profit. In pushing the dubious dual objectives, Nike chose the absolutely worst time and the worst athlete to make a social justice statement, and its decision highlights the business risk of politically progressive leadership.
The letter accompanying Nike’s Sustainability Business Report from CEO Mark Parker makes the company’s mission clear: “Our purpose is to use the power of sport to move the world forward.” Consistent with the progressive theme dictated by Parker, a Nike executive defended the Kaepernick deal on the basis of social change, saying, “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.”
In 2016, Kaepernick ignited the football players’ protests during the playing of the National Anthem, and the fallout from copycat protests over the years has hurt NFL viewership and the league’s brand. At a league meeting this year, owners expressed a deep concern that the protests were harming the NFL, including falling TV ratings and upset sponsors and fans.
The owners’ anxiety was backed by a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll of registered voters reporting a drop in fan interest in the NFL and a significant divide among fans regarding player protests.
Overall, 54 percent said player protests are not appropriate. When broken down into political affiliation, there was a sharp difference between Democrat and Republican views of the protests; 72 percent of Democrats thought the protests were appropriate, in contrast to only 10 percent of Republicans.
The poll results show that using Kaepernick in its marketing campaign will negatively impact Nike with Republicans, who make up about 37 percent of the U.S. population. Alienating a huge group of potential consumers to make a social justice point is shockingly foolish for a publicly traded company.
Nike has ignored the polarizing consequences of player protests and wrapped its brand around the ringleader of the protest movement, and its progressive marketing play is getting sacked by consumer backlash. Unsurprisingly, in the current hyper political environment, the negative reaction was swift and brutal, with outraged individuals burning Nike apparel in social media posts. The #NikeBoycott hashtag was a trending topic on twitter.
Nike is also susceptible to accusations of social justice hypocrisy. The company was accused of fostering a hostile workplace environment for women, resulting in a lawsuit for sexual harassment and pay disparity.
A New York Times story that preceded the lawsuit reported on a #MeToo effort at Nike that included women complaining of sexual harassment and the departure of six male executives from the company.
The social progressive views at Nike blinded the company from choosing more deserving athletes to head its 30th anniversary campaign. Houston Texans star defensive lineman J.J. Watt used his foundation to collect over $41 million for relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Harvey. Backing a positive role model and an unifying athlete such as Watt would benefit the NFL and Nike’s brand. But backing a player from a deep red state was most likely unacceptable for the progressive suits that run Nike.
Former NFL great and Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown is another great candidate to promote Nike apparel. Brown was an amazing athlete during the 1960s, when social injustice against blacks was rampant, and he used his fame to promote civil rights while he was playing. In contrast to Kaepernick, Brown said, “I’ll never kneel and I will always respect the flag.’’ If there was ever an athlete who fit “Just Do It,” it is Jim Brown.
Nike’s decision to put progressive views before profit and the interest of its shareholders is going to cost the company dearly and serve as a business case study of “What Not to Do.”
Dr. Tom Borelli is a contributor to Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @tomborelli.