Kaepernick stirs new controversy for Nike

NEW YORK (AP) Nike’s sales have only grown since it seized
attention with its ad campaign featuring former NFL quarterback
Colin Kaepernick. So, the shoemaker deferred to its star endorser
when he raised concerns over a sneaker featuring an early American
flag.

Nike pulled the Air Max 1 USA shoe, which included a
Revolutionary-era U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle on the
heel. Kaepernick reached out to Nike after learning they planned to
release the sneaker to explain that the flag recalls an era when
black people were enslaved and that it has been appropriated by
white nationalist groups, a person familiar with the conversation
told The Associated Press.

The person requested not to be named because the conversation was
intended to be private.

Nike decided to recall the shoe after it had been already sent to
retailers to go on sale this week for the July Fourth holiday,
according to the Wall Street Journal.

The decision caused an instant backlash among conservatives who
accused Nike of denigrating U.S. history, with Arizona Governor
Doug Ducey tweeting that he is asking the state’s Commerce
Authority to withdraw financial incentives promised to Nike to
build a plant in the state.

Others expressed surprise that the symbol known as the ”Betsy
Ross” flag, so named after the beloved Philadelphia woman credited
with designing it, could be considered offensive. Although some
extremist groups appear to have appropriated the flag, it is not
widely viewed as a symbol of hate, and is used in museums that
focus on 18th century U.S. history.

The Anti-Defamation League does not include it in its database of
hate symbols. Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the
ADL’s Center on Extremism, said extremist groups have occasionally
used it, but the flag is most commonly used by people for patriotic
purposes.

”We view it as essentially an innocuous historical flag,”
Pitcavage said. ”It’s not a thing in the white supremacist
movement.”

Nike said in statement that ”it pulled the shoe based on concerns
that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s
patriotic holiday.” The company pushed back against criticism that
the decision was being ”anti-American.”

”Nike is a company proud of its American heritage and our
continuing engagement supporting thousands of American athletes
including the U.S. Olympic team and U.S. Soccer teams,” Nike said.

Nike is showing consistency by listening to Kaepernick, the star of
the brand’s ”Just Do It” campaign last year that ultimately
proved a win for the company, said Chris Allieri, founder of New
York public relations firm Mulberry & Astor.

”Listening to somebody that has helped the brand in so many
countless ways, it makes sense. It would be completely hypocritical
for them not to listen to him,” Allieri said.

Kaepernick was the first NFL athlete to take a knee during the
national anthem to protest police brutality. Some people called for
boycotts after Nike featured him in a campaign last year that
included a print ad featuring a close-up of his face and the words,
”Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

The boycott calls fizzled.

Nike’s annual sales have jumped 7% to more than $39 billion,
according to the company’s last quarterly report. Its stock is up
12% since the start of the year. And Nike CEO Mark Parker has said
the Kaepernick campaign inspired ”record engagement with the
brand,” an important goal for a company trying to strengthen its
direct-to-consumer business.

Because the Betsy Ross flag is not widely considered a racist
image, it’s difficult to judge whether Nike should have designed
the shoe in the first place.

”Can a brand be expected to know everything possible that could be
offensive? That’s probably tough, but that’s why you have to have
inclusive teams,” Allieri said.

While some took to Twitter to thank Nike and Kaepernick for yanking
the sneaker, several Republican politicians were quick to condemn
the company.

”If we are in a political environment where the American flag has
become controversial to Americans, I think we have a problem,”
said Sen. Mitch McConnell.

Ducey ordered Arizona to withdraw a grant of up to $1 million that
was slated for Nike, said Susan Marie, executive vice president of
the Arizona Commerce Authority, which administers the grant. But
the governor has no authority over more than $2 million in tax
breaks over five years that were approved Monday by the City
Council in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, where Nike committed to
opening a $185 million factory that would employ more than 500
people.

Nike is unlikely to suffer financially over the flag flap, said
Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst at NPD Group Inc.

”I’m sure there are plenty of states out there that would love to
have a Nike factory that would employ 500 people,” Powell said.
”Today’s consumers really want brands to be vocal on social
issues, especially the younger consumers. This very much aligns
with the social position of their core consumers.”

Indeed, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham responded to Ducey’s
tweet with her own: ”Hey (at)Nike, Let’s talk.”

The abandoned shoe sparked a discussion on social media and beyond
about the Betsy Ross flag itself.

In 2016, a Michigan chapter of the NAACP said the flag has been
”appropriated by the so-called `Patriot Movement’ and other
militia groups who are responding to America’s increasing diversity
with opposition and racial supremacy.” The statement came in
response to a high school football event where the NAACP said some
white students used the flag while attempting to intimidate players
from a predominantly black school.

The Anti-Defamation League says ”Patriot movement” describes
groups that include militias and others who have adopted
anti-government conspiracy theories. The ADL says there is some
overlap between the ”Patriot” movement and the white supremacist
movement, but that overlap has shrunk over time.

Lisa Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House in Philadephia, said
she has never heard of the flag being used as a hate symbol.

”Personally, I’ve always seen it as a representation of early
America,” Moulder said. ”The young nation was not perfect, and it
is still not perfect.”

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