As the NFL season begins this weekend, Nike has thrown gasoline on the heated debate over athletes’ national anthem protests with an ad campaign starring Colin Kaepernick.
Two years have passed since the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback first knelt on the sidelines during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest racial injustice in the country, sparking a leaguewide movement. President Donald Trump and others said the protests disrespected the American flag and the U.S. military—similar to the way the Black Lives Matter movement is perceived as anti-police. Since then, lawsuits have been filed, policies have been set and taken back, and everyone from the punk kid down the street to your normally reticent grandmother has taken a side on social media.
And now Nike is getting involved, urging its customers to, like Kaepernick, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” (Kaepernick became a free agent in 2017, but no teams will sign him.) Previews of the ads generated a social media maelstrom complete with videos of people destroying their Nike apparel in protest and memes using Nike’s ad copy but featuring the faces of religious liberty icons Jack Phillips and Barronelle Stutzman instead of Kaepernick’s.
Is Nike sacrificing everything to stand with Kaepernick? Not even close.
What Nike most believes in, like any other publicly traded company, is profit. And one of its key markets—urban young adults with disposable income—is also the demographic most likely to support Kaepernick and others who protest during the national anthem.
“For Nike, the company’s best customer prospects are active, high-earning young people, for who else can or will spend more than $100 for a pair of sneakers,” demographics expert Pamela Danziger wrote for Forbes. A CNN/SSRS poll taken one year ago showed that 62 percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 thought athletes who protest during the national anthem were doing the right thing, compared to just 33 percent of people 45 and older.
CNBC’s Jim Cramer on Tuesday called Nike a “calculated company,” saying, “They’ve never known their customer better.”
The social media reaction shows that the Nike ads strike an emotional chord with customers, only strengthened by the fact that Trump opposes Kaepernick. A recent YouGov poll shows that 58 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds disapprove of Trump’s job performance, including 42 percent who “strongly disapprove.” Nike has just leveraged some of the strongest emotions of its most valuable customers in its favor.
Nike stock initially dropped by about 4 percent Tuesday when the ads were unveiled. The company is taking a gamble that investors who dropped the stock for ideological reasons will pick it back up when the the ad campaign starts to pay off, as analysts almost universally agree it will. That raises the question, how can those who disagree with Nike and Kaepernick make their voices heard?
Calls for a Nike boycott inevitably rose this week. College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., said it was getting rid of all of the sports uniforms it purchased from Nike. The private Christian college competes in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. Last year, it required all coaches and student athletes to stand and “show respect for the American flag and national anthem” at games.
“If Nike is ashamed of America, we are ashamed of them,” college president Jerry Davis said. “We also believe that those who know what sacrifice is all about are more likely to be wearing a military uniform than an athletic uniform.”
On the whole. ideological boycotts have mixed results, and the reasons aren’t well understood. Conservative outrage prompted A&E to reinstate Phil Robertson, the star of Duck Dynasty, and Nike made changes to its supply chain after a boycott over its use of sweatshop labor overseas. But a Christian boycott of Disney in the 1990s had no measurable impact. By 2017, Focus on the Family, one of the boycott’s more visible supporters, was hosting a Disney cruise.
For Christians, boycotting can reap the spiritual reward of not being complicit in a business’ immoral behavior. Summit Ministries’ Karl Schaller promoted that idea in 2016 when some evangelicals boycotted Target for its policy of allowing transgender people to use the restrooms of their choice.
“America’s citizens, and especially those in the church, are responsible for, and justified in, responding to this liberal reimagining of America with every tool at their disposal, including economic pressure in the form of a boycott,” Schaller wrote.
Robert Rothwell of Ligonier Ministries took a different position: “We are to be in the world, and being in this world means participating in the economies of this world. So, we must respectfully disagree with our fellow Christians who insist that all believers are morally obligated to boycott any company that supports sinful behavior.”
Paul writes that in matters of consumption, Christians have freedom—a point that could be instructive for believers pondering their response to Nike and that of their friends: “Each one should be convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:5-7).