Before Kaepernick: Polarizing Pro Athletes and Controversial Ad Campaigns

You can’t flip through your internet browser right now without seeing anyone and everyone’s reaction to Nike’s new ad campaign. In case you somehow miraculously haven’t heard: The Swoosh tapped Colin Kaepernick as the face of its “Just Do It” 30th-anniversary campaign. And, as with all things involving Kaepernick over the last couple of years, critics and fans alike can’t help giving their two cents.

As people both in and out of the football world know, the former 49ers quarterback knows how to grab the public’s attention. And since Nike’s stock took a hit after the announcement Monday, plenty of outlets are questioning why the company made such a brazen move by making such a polarizing figure the campaign’s figurehead.

What many may forget is that this move by Nike is nothing new. We just have to wait and see if said move is a successful one.

This isn’t Nike’s first rodeo

Long story short: Nike has no fear of pushing the envelope. They know how to get the public’s attention. And they know what faces will help them do that.

Enter Michael Jordan circa 1984. At a time when NBA players had to wear shoes that were predominantly white, the flashy then-rookie wore a pair of now-infamous black-and-red Air Ships during a preseason game. When the NBA followed suit by banning the shoes, Nike created an entire ad campaign around it. Now, more than three decades later, the Air Jordan sneakers have morphed into an everlasting icon.

In that instance, Nike saw a business move and successfully ran with it. The same can be said for the decision to include Colin Kaepernick in their new campaign. Which Business Insider, among other outlets, are calling a “brilliant strategy.”

Here’s where things get interesting …

… not that it wasn’t interesting already. Nevertheless, we don’t yet know how the partnership with Kaepernick could affect Nike’s partnership with the NFL.

In March 2018, the National Football League announced they extended their partnership with Nike as the main manufacturer of game-day jerseys and sideline gear for all 32 teams. In late August, the NFL learned the collusion grievance Colin Kaepernick filed against it will proceed to a full hearing. Now, the face of the man taking the league to court is also a face for the brand that manufactures the league’s apparel.

So — what does this mean for Nike and the NFL?

As of late, the NFL has released a statement merely saying the “social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.” The league has not made any comment about Nike directly. Nike reportedly hasn’t said whether they informed the NFL about their ad campaign beforehand, but a representative did say in a statement to USA Today:

“Nike has a long-standing relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current NFL players and its marks… Colin isn’t currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”

It, at least from the outside, sounds like Nike knows what it’s doing. They have been putting polarizing athletes in their ads long before Kaepernick, after all.