Earl Ofari Hutchinson
The message to Nike couldn’t have been more graphic. Nike patrons ripped the Nike logo from shorts, sweats, and assorted sportswear. Others burned their Nike sports shoes. The fury of the protesters in the pictures quickly went viral. That in turn ignited the stirrings of an organized call from outraged Nike customers to boycott the company. Nike’s offense was to ink a new deal with blacklisted former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Now, despite the furor over Kap’s NFL protest over police abuse and racial injustice, his blackball from the league, and his collusion lawsuit against the NFL owners, Nike never dropped him as one of their staple of pro athlete endorsers. Nike’s great sin this time to the Kap loathers was that the company brashly and very publicly declared it was supporting a new ad campaign with Kap as one of the faces of it. A lot of the dollars from the campaign would wind its way into Kap’s non-profit that bankrolls community groups fighting against racial injustice. This was too much for the haters and sent them scurrying to the barricades. Nike took another hit when its stock prices took a quick dip.
Nike almost certainly had to see this coming. From almost the first instant that Kap took a knee during the national anthem, he was a marked man, and anyone who had any connect to the NFL or an NFL sponsor that supported Kap would feel the heat too. Several owners made it crystal clear that the fans would be in wholesale revolt against their team if they signed him. They were right. There was just enough anecdotal stuff from informal polls, surveys, angry letters from fans and hostile talk about Kap from sports radio jocks to cement the owner’s tacit decision to make him NFL unemployable.
But the Kap issue is first and foremost a business issue. Corporations have always been quaked with fear at the hint of anything that would rouse the ire of customers and damage their business image. There’s a long list of athletes, entertainers, and assorted celebrities that corporations have dropped like a hot iron after an accusation of bad behavior against them. Sports fans have long since figured out that they can get their way with a business that’s directly connected through advertising with sports by simply threatening to not guzzle their beer, eat their pizza, or not buy their apparel.
In the case of Kap and the NFL, the Kap backlash got a huge boost when Trump became the chief ringmaster railing against the NFL owners for seeming to kow tow to Kap and the players in their protests. He revved up the mob at rallies and through his tweets. There always lurked underneath the message to sports ad sponsors to keep long distance from the controversy. The anti-Kap fans have eaten this up because many of them are exactly the kind of fan that the NFL owners have in mind who would rebel against Kap on an NFL team.
There’s another reason that many NFL corporate sponsors run from controversy like the plague. They fear the wrath of veterans and other patriotic groups. Football unlike any other pro sport, has been wrapped tightly in the flag, the military, and patriotism, the flag, and endless ritual patriotic displays before games. A major Ford dealer in Denver typified this sentiment and fear. It quickly dropped NFL all pro linebacker Von Miller from its car sale ads after Miller along with a few other Bronco players took a knee during the anthem. The company issued a statement that oozed with its tout of the military and punctuated that by posting the website of a veteran organization.
Other companies caught the drift and issued their own statements backing the military and demanding an end to the player protests. The unstated message was that if the NFL did not crack down, they’d take their ad dollars somewhere else. The dollar card is one that the NFL owners always hyper sensitive of the bottom line always keeps their eye firmly on.
Nike fortunately, was never among the companies that feared financial reprisals from fans or the NFL, and especially from Trump. When Trump saber rattled the NFL over the protests, Nike swiftly issued a terse statement saying that company backed the “right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society.” This didn’t sit well with Trump, the NFL, and now as is apparent from the hysteria of fans over Nike’s recommitment to Kap, with these fans.
Kap for his part took it in stride as he’s done with all the venom and vitriol from the fans and the owners. He said nothing. Nike for its part said nothing either. It didn’t have to. Its dollars behind Kap speaks for itself.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of The Kavanaugh Court (Amazon). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.