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What believing in Colin Kaepernick means for Nike

Nike just launched a new advertising campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who came to national prominence by protesting police brutality and racial injustice by kneeling during the national anthem before games. Nike’s move has reignited a national debate, stirred most famously by President Trump. William Brangham with John Feinstein, author of “Quarterback.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The sportswear company Nike just launched a new advertising campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    As William Brangham reports, Nike's move has triggered calls for a boycott and reignited the debate over social protest.

  • William Brangham:

    Nike's new ad just shows Colin Kaepernick's face. The words say, "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."

    Kaepernick, of course, doesn't currently have a job in the NFL, and it's unclear if he ever will again. Kaepernick came to national prominence back in 2016, when he was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers.

    Protesting what he described as racial injustice in America, Kaepernick kneeled down when the national anthem was played before games. Here's how he explained why he was doing it.

  • Colin Kaepernick:

    There are a lot of things that are going on there that are unjust, people aren't being held accountable for. And that's something that needs to change.

    One specifically is police brutality. There's people being murdered unjustly and not being held accountable. Cops are getting paid leave for killing people. That's not right. That's not right by anyone's standards.

  • William Brangham:

    Some fellow NFL players followed suit, echoing Kaepernick's protest.

    But Kaepernick was also heavily criticized, with many arguing he was being unpatriotic or was somehow denigrating America's armed forces. Last fall, President Trump joined that chorus, casting these protests against police violence as an attack on the American flag.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, get that son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off the field right now, out? He's fired. He's fired!

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • President Donald Trump:

    So, I watched Colin Kaepernick, and I thought it was terrible. And then it got bigger and bigger and started mushrooming.

    I will tell you, you cannot disrespect our country, our flag, our anthem. You cannot do that.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    The minute Nike's ad was released yesterday, some critics took to social media, blasting the company and publicly destroying or defacing their own Nike clothing.

  • Man:

    Five pairs of shoes, and they are all going to let them burn.

  • William Brangham:

    For its part, Nike stood by the decision. A vice president for the company said this to ESPN, "We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward."

    President Trump reportedly said today that Nike was sending a — quote — "terrible message" with this ad, but also said Nike's ability to do what it wants is — quote — "what this country is all about."

    For more on all this, I'm joined now by one of the country's great sports writers, John Feinstein. He's a contributing columnist for The Washington Post and has written dozens of books. His latest, soon to be released, is about the NFL. It's called "Quarterback."

    Welcome back to the show.

  • John Feinstein:

    My pleasure, William. Thanks.

  • William Brangham:

    The Nike campaign, as we just heard, says specifically, "Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."

    The clear implication there is that Kaepernick lost his career in the NFL because he spoke up, not because he was maybe not the great quarterback. Is that true? Is that why he lost his job?

  • John Feinstein:

    One percent true, William.

    This — he was a starting quarterback in 2016 for the San Francisco 49ers, and actually had a pretty good year, 14 touchdown passes and three interceptions, for a bad team. But he was a starter. And then he became a free agent that March and couldn't get a job, even as a backup quarterback.

    Teams went out and signed guys from arena leagues, instead of signing him. And there was absolutely no way, in my mind, that the NFL was going to allow him to continue to play after he had led this national anthem protest.

    And, as President Trump said, it did grow. And that's what he set out to do. He wanted to create a dialogue — his words. And that's what happened. And the NFL wouldn't give him a job. And now they're facing a collusion case in front of an arbitrator brought by Colin Kaepernick.

  • William Brangham:

    Right, that he's — you clearly believe that Kaepernick's case is legit, that the owners, maybe they didn't get on the phone…

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    … collectively and say, hey, let's not hire this guy. But that's going to be a very hard case to prove.

  • John Feinstein:

    It always is, unless there's a smoking gun, unless there's a transcript of a conversation between the commissioner and owners.

    I mean, back in the 1980s, baseball players were able to prove collusion against the Major League owners in terms of contracts, because they — it came out that the commissioner back then had said, don't sign them to these big contracts.

    But it is very hard to prove. I also think, though, that the Eric Reid case may help Kaepernick, because Eric Reid is a 27-year-old safety who was one of the best in the league, a teammate of Kaepernick's, joined Kaepernick's protest, became a free agent last — this past March, and doesn't have a contract either.

    So you don't have to get on the phone with people to collude not to sign somebody.

  • William Brangham:

    Speaking of the Nike campaign, do you think that there is a potential downside to them? I mean, we have already seen the trickles of a boycott, threatening — people burning their shoes.

    Do you think there's a downside to the company?

  • John Feinstein:

    There's no question there's a gamble here on the — on the business side by Nike. I'm sure they did market research before they launched — made the decision to sign Kaepernick to a new contract — he'd been with them since 2011 — and to launch this campaign.

    And, of course, you knew — they knew there was going to be backlash like this at first, because this is a very — this is a very black-and-white issue to most people. You're either on one side or you're on the other side. There are very few people who are in the middle.

    So what you saw during your piece there, people burning Nike gear — the stock went down today on Wall Street. But they — I'm sure they're convinced that, long term, there will be bounce-back because of this campaign for them.

    I'm reminded a little bit, in an ironic way, of years ago, when Michael Jordan was asked — another Nike client, was asked by Dean Smith to campaign for Harvey Gantt in the Senate race in North Carolina against Jesse Helms, one of the last segregationists in the Senate.

    Michael Jordan turned him down and said to Dean Smith, black — Republicans buy shoes too.

    And I think Nike is banking on the fact right now that African-Americans buy shoes too.

  • William Brangham:

    And maybe it's possible that Nike actually wants to court a backlash. I mean, we know that they have been taking some market heat from companies like Under Armour.

  • John Feinstein:

    Right.

  • William Brangham:

    Maybe they want to polarize the environment and drive young, maybe liberal, maybe African-American kids to buy their pricey shoes.

  • John Feinstein:

    Well, it's very interesting, because who is their most prominent spokesman right now? It's LeBron James, who's been very outspoken on social issues, who has engaged with President Trump in a give-and-take that's been very hostile.

  • William Brangham:

    And seemingly suffered no repercussions for it.

  • John Feinstein:

    No, and he's still the most — probably right now the most popular athlete, certainly in this country and perhaps in the world. Maybe there are soccer players who are more popular worldwide than LeBron James.

    But, in this country, he is the man. And he's very different than Michael Jordan, who never wanted to take a political stance. He's taken many political stances.

    Serena Williams has also spoken out on Kaepernick's behalf just in the last few days. So, I think Nike is believing, or hoping at least, that there will be people who will say, hey, you're on Colin Kaepernick's side, we want your product.

  • William Brangham:

    To that example of LeBron and Serena, is that simply a function of, if you are clearly at the top in your field, you can risk a political controversy, but if you're maybe on the bubble, you can't risk it?

  • John Feinstein:

    Oh, there's no question about that.

    I mean, if Tom Brady — let's just use that as an example — chose to kneel for the national anthem…

  • William Brangham:

    He's, I have heard, a decent quarterback himself.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes, he's had a few good years. He's won five Super Bowls.

    I think he'd still have a job. Or, to use an African-American example, Cam Newton with the Carolina Panthers, if he had been the one who had decided to take this issue on, he wouldn't have ended up as a free agent without a job.

    But Colin Kaepernick was a good NFL quarterback. He took the 49ers to a Super Bowl in his second year in the league, and has been a solid player. But a great player? No. Is he going to the Hall of Fame? No.

    And because of that, a lot of teams took the approach, either we don't want them. Remember, most NFL owners are conservative. At least seven of them gave more than a million dollars to President Trump in his campaign. Or, B, he's not worth the trouble that will come, because there clearly has been some backlash among NFL fans, especially since that speech that President Trump gave…

  • William Brangham:

    Right.

  • John Feinstein:

    … in September of 2017.

    The week before he gave that speech, there were total of six NFL players who knelt for the national anthem. That Sunday, two days later, there were more than 200. And three NFL teams stayed in the locker room altogether.

    And the controversy is still ongoing because the owners tried to unilaterally change the rules on the anthem this past May, saying, if you are on the field, you must stand. And the Players Association…

  • William Brangham:

    If not, head to the locker room.

  • John Feinstein:

    Yes, or stay in the locker room.

    And the Players Association said, wait a minute, this is part of this — the collective bargaining agreement. You have to bargain this with us.

    So, now they have backed off. And the two sides are trying to negotiate some kind of compromise.

  • William Brangham:

    John Feinstein, the next book is "Quarterback." Can't wait to see it.

    Thank you very much for being here.

  • John Feinstein:

    Thanks for having me, William. Appreciate it.

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