BEAVERTON, United States — The backlash poured in just hours after Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked controversy for kneeling during the national anthem, tweeted that he’s starring in Nike Inc.’s iconic “Just Do It” ad campaign.
Following the announcement, hashtags #BoycottNike and #JustBurnIt started trending on Twitter. Some angry consumers posted photos and videos of themselves burning their Nike shoes and other gear to protest the company’s feature of the divisive figure in its 30th anniversary ad campaign.
The backlash was no surprise but Nike may be betting that the upside of a Kaepernick endorsement is worth angering conservative Americans and supporters of President Donald Trump. Kaepernick, who sparked a movement among professional athletes when he began taking a knee in 2016 during the anthem to protest police brutality against African Americans, is embroiled in a lawsuit against the National Football League and accuses it of blacklisting him.
Still, the former 49er is one of the most popular football players in the U.S. The shoe giant is likely counting on passions to cool.
“The long-term relationship and a contract that benefits both parties over the next 10 years will likely outweigh any current controversy,” said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Chen Grazutis.
Kaepernick tweeted an image from the campaign with the caption, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
Nike is in a fierce battle with rival Adidas AG to sign star athletes. The combined marketing spending of the two companies may hit as much as $10 billion by fiscal 2020.
Nike has also shown its willingness to wade into America’s culture wars. Just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration last year, the company launched a high-profile “Equality” campaign featuring LeBron James and Serena Williams. The campaign’s ambassadors included Ibtihaj Muhammad, a Muslim American fencer who wears a hijab when competing, and transgender triathlete Chris Mosier.
Despite criticism from President Trump and calls by both conservatives and liberals to boycott the league, the NFL is still pulling in billions of dollars. The world’s richest sports league, the NFL distributed a record $8.1 billion to its teams last season and posted an estimated overall revenue of $14 billion.
There is a risk of Nike upsetting its relationship with the NFL, which last week lost an attempt to dismiss Kaepernick’s lawsuit alleging collusion by the league to prevent him from signing with a team.
By Bruce Einhorn, with assistance from Kristine Servando; editors: K. Oanh Ha and Jeff Sutherland.