Nike planned to celebrate the Fourth of July with a new sneaker, a special edition of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike featuring that most patriotic of symbols: an American flag.
But rather than including a flag with 50 stars as part of its design, the sneaker’s heel featured the 13-star model, a design associated with the Revolutionary War, the Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross and, for some people, a painful history of oppression and racism.
On Tuesday, Nike canceled the release of the sneaker, plunging headlong into the nation’s culture wars.
The abrupt cancellation came after Colin Kaepernick, the former National Football League quarterback and social justice activist, privately criticized the design to Nike, according to a person with knowledge of the interaction.
Kaepernick, who signed a lucrative deal to serve as a Nike brand ambassador last year, expressed the concern to the company that the Betsy Ross flag had been co-opted by groups espousing racist ideologies, the person said.
Sandra Carreon-John, a company spokeswoman, said in a statement Tuesday that Nike had made the decision to “halt distribution” of the sneaker “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.” The company’s initial acknowledgment of the recall hours earlier did not explain the reasoning behind the decision.
While people all across the political spectrum debated the issue on social media, Gov. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., announced on Twitter that he would pull back state support for a Nike facility that would have employed more than 500 people. Nike had planned to open the $184 million plant in Goodyear, Arizona.
“Words cannot express my disappointment at this terrible decision,” Ducey said in a series of tweets, adding that Nike “has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism.”
The governor, who had previously called the factory “an exciting project,” also said: “Arizona’s economy is doing just fine without Nike. We don’t need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation’s history.”
Susan Marie, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Commerce Authority, said the economic development agency was withdrawing the offer of a grant to Nike, worth up to $1 million, “at the governor’s discretion.”
The Wall Street Journal first reported on the cancellation of the sneaker and Kaepernick’s involvement.
Betsy Ross is widely credited with creating the first American flag at George Washington’s behest, though most scholars dispute that story as legend, according to the Library of Congress.
To many, the flag is merely a relic, a design that shows up at historical sites like Colonial Williamsburg and on government insignia, like the seal of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“People just see it as a symbol of early America and the founding of our nation,” said Lisa Moulder, director of the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, which draws more than 1,000 visitors a day. “In Betsy’s time, the flag was strictly utilitarian, a military tool.”
But the flag has, at least in recent years, cropped up in association with racist ideologies. When the Ku Klux Klan tried to recruit new followers in upstate New York last year, its flyers featured a Klansman flanked by the Confederate flag and the Betsy Ross flag. Similar imagery was reportedly included in a letter sent by the Klan to a college newspaper in Washington in 2017.
In 2016, a school superintendent in Michigan apologized after students waved the 13-star flag alongside a Trump political banner at a football game, writing in a letter to parents that the flag had come “to some symbolizes exclusion and hate.” And according to a 2013 investigation by The Albany Herald in Georgia, at least some local Klan units were required to use either that flag or the Confederate flag at ritualistic meetings.
Prominent conservatives argued that Nike’s cancellation of the shoe was unpatriotic.
“It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on Twitter.
Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, tweeted, “Just so you know how this works now: Nothing can happen in America anymore if Colin Kaepernick doesn’t like it.”
Kaepernick, who led the San Francisco 49ers to the Super Bowl after the 2012 season, became a face of the social justice movement in 2016 after he began kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against black people and racial inequality in the United States.
His acts of protest inspired similar demonstrations from other professional athletes, but they came under fire from politicians including President Donald Trump, who argued that they were disrespecting the country and the military, and some fans boycotted the NFL.
After receiving no offers to join with a team after the 2016 season, Kaepernick accused the NFL of trying to keep him and a former teammate, Eric Reid, out of the league. In February, the two reached a surprise settlement with the NFL. The terms of the deal have not been disclosed.
As part of his lucrative endorsement arrangement with Nike, Kaepernick appeared prominently in an advertising campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the company’s “Just Do It” slogan. In the wake of the ad, some consumers called for a boycott of Nike, while others destroyed their Nike products.
But analysts said that Nike had not suffered financially from its association with an athlete who had become a symbol of the so-called Resistance movement.
“Pretty much every metric you can look at was positive for Nike — their social media mentions went up, their sales rose the week after, and they won a bunch of awards for the ad campaign,” said Matt Powell, a sports industry analyst for the NPD Group. “They are clearly aligned with their core customer base — the millennial and the Gen Z consumer — and if they have alienated others, those are not the folks who buy a lot of Nikes.”
The decision to cancel the special Air Max shoe is a sign of Kaepernick’s power at Nike, said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Nike is signaling that they’re going to go all-in on this road, whatever the consequences are, even if it’s going to get some consumers to burn their shoes on Twitter,” he said.
But it can be risky for corporations to ally themselves with divisive brand ambassadors.
“When you get into the game of commodifying social issues in a time of ultra-volatile global political sensitivity, you better create a department in your organization that does nothing all day and night but monitors and understands that state of play,” David A. Hollander, an assistant dean and associate professor at New York University’s Tisch Institute for Global Sport, said in an email.
Companies have reacted quickly to brand gaffes in the past. H&M apologized last year for using a black child to model a hoodie that said “coolest monkey in the jungle” and removed the sweatshirt from its stores. The year before, Zara withdrew a miniskirt featuring a cartoon that resembled Pepe the Frog, a character designated as an alt-right hate symbol.
Those examples were more obviously offensive than the commemorative Nikes, several branding experts said. But Reed, of the Wharton School, said that, for many consumers, the 18th-century flag was representative less of the fight for freedom from British rule than of a period of race-based oppression.
“For lots of people, it’s quite similar to, say, the Confederate flag,” Reed said. “The revolution now is one of diversity, of all kinds of dimensions that go beyond just white males — women, people of color, people of different sexual orientations. It’s a different world, and it’s a different flag.”