Colin Kaepernick, Nike, and the Myth of Good and Bad Companies

The brand’s alignment with the embattled NFL star is nothing more than smart business.

Drew Angerer / Getty

After Phil Knight first launched the Nike brand in 1971, he claimed that he could persuade the whole world to buy his shoes if he could first get them on the feet of “five cool guys.” In truth, it took only two cool guys to transform Nike into what Knight would later call a “total brand”: the Oregon distance runner Steve Prefontaine, whose spectacular rise and early death rooted his legend, and his unrealized potential, firmly in the soil of Nike’s origin story; and Michael Jordan, who reintroduced the brand to millions of Americans a decade after Pre’s death, saving the shoe company from irrelevance at the tail end of the jogging boom.

“What Phil and Nike have done,” Jordan said, “is turn me into a dream.”

The dream business was immensely profitable for Nike: Just a few years after Jordan’s first Nike commercial aired in 1985, the company surpassed a billion dollars in annual sales; a short while later, in 1988, Dan Wieden, of the Portland advertising firm Wieden + Kennedy, gave Nike its most enduring slogan: “Just Do It.” On Monday afternoon, in anticipation of that slogan’s 30th anniversary, Nike announced the former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick as the new face of the “Just Do It” campaign.

It’s significant that an institution as powerful as Nike has thrown its weight behind Kaepernick and his crusade against racial injustice, which began when he started kneeling during the national anthem—a move that has put him at odds with the NFL, and which has almost certainly kept football teams from employing him. But Nike has often been on the wrong side of social-justice movements, and in the past used its considerable power and influence to crush any protest movement that undermined the company’s bottom line.

Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, underage workers toiled in Indonesian factories producing Nike shoes; at factories in China, workers claimed they were coerced into putting in excessive overtime in order to meet Nike’s demanding production schedule; and in Vietnamese factories, workers faced dangerous conditions later documented by independent auditors from Ernst & Young. In the summer of 1997, when Nguyen Thi Thu Phuong died while making a pair of Nike shoes at a factory in Vietnam, the company’s response was to boldly claim: “We don’t make shoes.” This was a shockingly disingenuous statement from a company whose founder would later call his memoir Shoe Dog.

While reporting a book about Nike, I learned that during the spring of 2000, Knight sought to crush a growing campus-protest movement against sweatshop labor by quashing lucrative equipment and apparel deals with the University of Oregon and the University of Michigan. Behind closed doors, the billionaire resorted to more personal means of retribution, including withholding donations from a nonprofit organization run by the University of Oregon president, Dave Frohnmayer. When Nike did at last make concessions to labor unions at some of the factories making its shoes, it was only because of sustained efforts from labor and human-rights organizations, such as the Worker Rights Consortium. In the wake of this defeat, after years of ignoring or denying accusations that it had relied on sweatshop labor, Nike learned how to market itself as a good corporation with noble intentions, which were stymied only by its naïveté. It was a company trapped by its own humble beginnings, unaware of the immense power it had accrued, according to a May 2001 statement issued by Nike’s corporate and social responsibility manager, Harsh Saini.

“We were a bunch of shoe geeks who expanded so much without thinking of being socially responsible that we went from being a very sexy brand name to suddenly becoming the poster boy for everything bad in manufacturing,” Saini said.

Kaepernick’s “Just Do It” ad, which bears the slogan “Believe in Something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” seems, on its face, to be more politically divisive than any campaign in Nike’s history—praised from the left for giving Kaepernick a platform to continue speaking out against police brutality and racial injustice, and vilified from the right by the likes of Sean Hannity, who remains determined to cast Kaepernick as unpatriotic and disrespectful. In reality, however, Nike’s standing with Kaepernick has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the fact that he has transformed himself into an icon. For Nike, Kaepernick’s cause is simply good business—if it were anything other than a cynical branding exercise, the company would surely not be simultaneously doing business with the NFL, which has done its best to stifle Kaepernick’s protest movement.

One of capitalism’s most enduring myths is the idea that there are good corporations and bad corporations. The truth is far more simple: Colin Kaepernick has a dream, and selling dreams is Nike’s business.