Monday afternoon, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick tweeted a tightly cropped grayscale photo of his face, emblazoned with a simple message: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” Below Kaepernick’s lips, the Nike logo accompanied the company’s pithy slogan: “Just do it.”
For Kaepernick, the “something” meriting a Sisyphean sacrifice has been addressing systemic racial injustice (most notably, police brutality), a platform he’s dedicated himself to advancing since he first began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem in the 2016 season. In the time since, the anthem protests have become a much larger movement, but the athlete behind them remains a much reviled figure even as he pledged—and then donated—more than $1 million to 41 charitable organizations. The free agent was not offered a spot on any NFL team’s roster last season, and his collusion grievance against league owners—in which he alleges that NFL executives and owners alike conspired to keep him from playing because of his activism—is ongoing.
For Nike, sacrifice is a market variable. The company has long partnered with athletes to advertise its shoes and apparel; because athletes are personas as much as they are professionals, these deals trade on the value of their celebrity. Cashing in on Kaepernick’s activism to bolster the gravitas of “Just Do It” is a clever marketing tactic, a way for Nike to access the social cachet of resistance efforts without altering its own corporate DNA. But in selecting Kaepernick as the face of its “Just Do It” 30th-anniversary campaign, Nike also angered the segment of its customer base that views the activist not as an intrepid spirit but as an uppity pariah. Immediately after Kaepernick tweeted the news, indignant patriots began sharing footage of themselves (and others) destroying Nike gear (the videos even inspired parodies).