It came in the bowels of the Olympic Stadium in Berlin where Caster Semenya hooked up with superstar athlete LeBron James. The earth didn’t shake, but it might have – Semenya is a powerful torch bearer for women’s athletics (and more) and “King James” is in the realm of a Tiger Woods or Lionel Messi; perhaps the greatest basketballer of them all. It was a slick piece of marketing by Nike, who engineered the hook-up and lapped up the publicity.
But even this meeting of uber-athletes paled against events on Monday when Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick as the face of its 30th anniversary campaign.
“Believe in something,” read the slogan across his grey-scale Nike portrait. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
It was a ploy rich with symbolism and corporate risk. Kaepernick is the former NFL player who famously chose to raise awareness of the killing of black Americans and knelt during the American national anthem during the 2016 season.
It ignited a wild fire that went to the very top. US president Donald Trump was furious, and his Republican allies waded in. Kaepernick has since shamefully been frozen out of the NFL – no team is brave enough to contract him – and isn’t quite sure what to do with him.
After the Kaepernick campaign was announced, social media took flame. Some supported it, many didn’t. Pictures were posted of Nike gear being burned and tops cut off swoosh-topped socks.
Make no mistake, this was a calculated move by Nike, who would have considered every risk. Do they side with the old white guy (Trump) and his conservative allies or do they go with the zeitgeist and take a moral stand, effectively embracing the aspirational (and enlightened) youth market?
Remarkably, Nike is also the official apparel supplier to the NFL, having just signed a $3-billion contract extension. Irony doesn’t get better than this - the new face of the apparel brand is the man who is suing the NFL for collusion.
Times sure have changed from the days when Michael Jordan, the original Nike superstar, refused to go down the political road. “Republicans buy sneakers too,” he is said to have remarked.
Jordan could probably afford to say that. But this is a more enlightened era with diversity and social consciousness now front and centre of American life. Trump’s rule might have hardened attitudes, but athletes like Kaepernick, and even James, who says he would refuse to meet with Trump, represent a shift in morality. They aren’t afraid to take a stand.
Nike, though, aren’t pure do-gooders. Their primary objective is to sell sneakers; to rake in cash. It won’t have escaped them that after Kaepernick began his protests, his jersey became the best-selling one in the NFL.
He struck a nerve and Nike’s executives have twigged on. There’s big business in this too.
No matter. It is refreshing to see a major international corporation take a stand, when so many prefer to back off or to toe the party line.
It’s also an object lesson in the power and influence of heroic sports people. They can make a difference.