The September 2018 announcement by Nike that controversial free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick would be one of the faces of the company’s 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign prompted waves of support, condemnation, calls for boycotts, as well as spoofs of Nike’s
purported reaction to all the fuss.
Among that last category was a quote attributed to Nike holding that since they were a $76 billion company, they could “afford to let go of all ‘Make America Great Again’ customers.” That is, Nike supposedly boldly and hubristically stated that they were big enough to thumb their nose at conservative consumers disgruntled about company’s relationship with Kaepernick and could safely ignore any boycott threats:
Given that Nike has shown no signs of backing down from their association with Colin Kaepernick in the face of criticism, condemnation, and threats, some onlookers might believe the words reproduced above reflect the company’s attitude towards the issue. Certainly that belief is not a rare sentiment, as some outside Nike have said as much (although with a bit more subtlety):
[C]ompanies and major sports leagues have been careful not to stray into real politics, famously symbolized by [Michael] Jordan, who reportedly said Republicans buy shoes, too. While Jordan and others in his era were thrilled to have lucrative shoe deals, the current generation is going farther by using their sneaker deals as a platform to promote social justice.
And with that shift, Nike is taking the side of its superstar athletes — even if it means alienating Trump supporters and intertwining shoes and politics.
Many companies “feel the need to align with players, because players help them move the product,” said Michael Lewis, director of the Marketing Analytics Center at Emory University in Atlanta.
Companies “have made millions off of following trends from the black community, and so they have to be cognizant of the feelings of that community,” said Antonio S. Williams, who teaches sports marketing at Indiana University. “It only takes one or two incidents for shoes to be pushed aside and declared uncool and left behind, so they are very aware of the cultural exchanges and trends going on in their base communities.”
Nike doesn’t seem to be backing down. Its two-minute commercial, highlighting Kaepernick, James, Serena Williams and others, aired during halftime of the NFL’s season opener.
Nike has likely figured out that its core consumers — the people who regularly buy its sneakers and clothes — are probably the millennials and minority youth who already support Kaepernick or at least don’t mind the stance he is taking, Antonio Williams said.
But Nike themselves haven’t officially expressed such a sentiment, at least not in so many words. We found no evidence that anyone authorized to speak for Nike made the statement reproduced above, or said anything that could be reasonably paraphrased as such.
The earliest reference to this statement we could find came from a Twitter user who, in response to an article published by The Hill about President Trump’s reaction to the Nike/Kaepernick deal, wrote that the quotes words stemmed from an NPR segment aired on the morning of 4 September 2018:
On NPR this morning, NIKE stated, “We did all the math. We’re a $76 Billion dollar company that can afford to let go of all ‘make america great again’ customers. We would rather be on the right side of history.”
— lisaglove (@lisaglove2) September 5, 2018
However, an NPR segment on this topic aired that day included no statement or quote of any kind from anyone associated with Nike. The “All Things Considered” piece by NPR correspondent Yuki Noguchi merely offered a few sound bites from third parties who suggested that Nike does not flinch from courting controversy.
For example, David Carter, the executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, was quoted as saying that “Nike likes this attention. They’ve always reveled in it, and they have not been shy about using athletes’ controversial opinions and positioning to drive their value.” And Matt Powell, a sports industry adviser with the NPD Group, opined that “Gen-Z and millennial consumers really want brands and retailers to take visible and vocal stands on social issues. And I don’t think there’s going to be any significant backlash [against Nike].”
Another NPR segment on the subject also from 4 September (this one aired on “Morning Edition”), featured an interview with Justin Tinsley of the website The Undefeated. Tinsley’s mention of wanting to be “on the right side of history” suggests this NPR piece was in fact where the alleged statement came from, but the words were a paraphrase of Tinsley’s comments, not Nike’s:
Like, [Nike’s] not going to take a drastic hit from the bottom line. And at the end of the day, Nike — again, this is an internationally known, multibillion-dollar company. They’ve done the math. They’ve done the bottom line probably hundreds of times over. And they know the benefit that can come from this.
And at the end of the day, you want to be on the right side of history as well because when we look back on this era of sports activism, Nike is going to have, you know, probably the three most recognizable names in that arena, one being, obviously, Colin Kaepernick, who has been signed to Nike since 2011. This wasn’t just something that Nike just signed him two months ago trying to, you know, jump on that bandwagon. But it’s Colin Kaepernick, it’s Serena Williams and, of course, LeBron James. And that goes a long way with the legacy of a company.
A similar remark was offered by Antonio S. Williams, who was quoted in the Associated Press article linked above as saying that “Nike wants to be on the right side of history and the right side of its core consumers.”
All in all, what we seem to be seeing here is other people’s analyses of Nike’s position on the issue and its attendant controversy being paraphrased and wrongly put into the corporate mouth of Nike.
We also note that the current market capitalization of Nike is around $128 billion, not $76 billion.
(Nike themselves did not respond to our request for comment in time for publication.)