As Nike Controls the Conversation With Its Kaepernick Ad, the NFL Must Decide What It Stands For

The league has played both sides for too long

Nike knows what it believes in. Does the NFL?
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Nike’s marketing has historically started conversations about tough subjects from ageism to Title IX and HIV. And its 30th anniversary celebration of its “Just do it” tagline doesn’t stray from that tradition. The brand’s black-and-white, close-up photo of football player Colin Kaepernick, with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” and the two-minute spot that ran during the first game of the NFL season ignited a social media firestorm.

In featuring Kaepernick, one of the most influential—and contentious—sports figures today, particularly with copy that shows a definitive display of support for him, Nike puts itself at odds with the NFL, an organization it has a partnership with until 2028. And to add fuel to the fire, Nike didn’t give the NFL a heads up about the Kaepernick ad, according to ESPN.

“Nike has a long-standing relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current NFL players and its marks,” said Sandra Carreon-John, a spokesperson for Nike. “Colin is not currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL or its marks.”

Nike may not have been required to give a heads up, but by not reportedly doing so, it could potentially create a wedge between Nike and the NFL, according to David Carter, executive director of USC’s Marshall Sports Business Institute. As he said, “Any element of surprise at a level of the strategic importance between Nike and the NFL never bodes well short term.”

The NFL’s exclusive apparel deal with Nike means players who take the field and fans who wear NFL gear in the stands have Nike’s logo printed on their shoulders—serving as “a not-so-subtle reminder to all those that do business with the NFL, including its other sponsors, players and fans, that a precarious relationship exists,” Carter said.

As the league struggles with ratings (broadcast TV trends, and not Kaepernick, are mostly to blame), a Morning Consult survey that shows 26 percent of fans are less likely to watch the NFL, while 21 percent of fans are more likely to watch because of the Nike ad, can’t help the relationship either.

But even with that, will this ad have a lasting (or even momentary) impact on this relationship?

If there is short-term conflict, it likely won’t last, noted John Fisher, former CEO of Saucony and now a marketing professor at Boston College. That’s due in large part to Nike’s vast scale and size. “Nike is such a large brand, they can do something that’s in conflict with one of the largest athletic brands in the world, the NFL,” he said. “Their scale allows for staring down the eyeballs of the NFL.”

The NFL’s stance on the matter is also less clear-cut. In response to the ad, the NFL put out a statement on social justice, which commends Kaepernick’s activism. “The NFL believes in dialogue, understanding and unity,” said Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s evp of communications and public affairs. “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

However, statements like this one strike a contrast from the organization’s actions: In May, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced that players would be fined for not standing for the anthem, but they could remain in the locker room without penalty. He called standing for the anthem “a very important moment for a lot of us as a league, as clubs and [for] our country, and it’s a moment we want to make sure is done in a respectful fashion.” It’s near impossible to view this edict as one that’s in support of the protests Kaepernick began two years ago.

Nike’s ad only serves to highlight the disparity between the brand and the NFL. Yadira Harrison, co-founder of marketing consultancy Verb, argued that in the end, this attempt to placate as many people as possible will hurt the NFL by squandering opportunities to have these important conversations with its fans, players and sponsors.

"Nike is such a large brand, they can do something that's in conflict with one of the largest athletic brands in the world, the NFL."
John Fisher, former CEO of Saucony and now a marketing professor at Boston College

“It tries to be everything to everyone, and in turn, allows Nike and Kaepernick to take the reins,” she said. “Not just with the ad, but with all the press, social chatter and think pieces in the coming days and weeks.”

Perhaps because of this tactic—trying not to anger anyone, and ending up pleasing no one—the NFL’s reputation is in a more fragile state on both sides of the issue. Those who are anti-Kaepernick are angry that the NFL didn’t do more to stop these protests, while his supporters wish the league had offered these players further support.

“The NFL brand perception isn’t exactly all peaches and cream,” said Brian Salzman, founder and CEO of relationship marketing agency RQ. “If anything, this type of controversy is keeping it relevant and a conversation topic. Sports fans love a good rivalry. Perhaps this discussion is that on another level.”

And with a billion-dollar contract signed earlier this year, what choice does the NFL really have?

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This story first appeared in the September 10, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@dianapearl_ Diana is the deputy brands editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.