Colin Kaepernick: What Nike, Wieden+Kennedy and we all missed out on

Much has been written about Nike's latest ad featuring American quarterback Colin Kaepernick, but senior strategy consultant Daniel Bluzer-Fry believes there's one element of the story we all missed out on.

Sports play an important role in our lives. At their best, they help build bridges between the stratum of our ever fracturing societies. Yet the marketisation of sports has fundamentally compromised what sports can and should be.

The Harvard Professor and Political Philosopher Michael Sandal writes about this in great detail in the closing chapter of his brilliant 2012 title ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets’.

Amongst other things, he explored the ‘Skyboxification’ of sport, and how it’s driven a wedge in what was once a great social equalizer, the rise of merchandising, and how sponsorship has compromised the idea of community, place and identity that sport has always nurtured.

In a perfect world, all sporting institutions would be run like B-Corporations or Public Benefit Corporations (in the U.S) with their fans and the broader community’s interests always at the core of decision making.

However, in reality, the marketisation of sport is here to stay. Sponsorships dollars have become important in a competitive and cluttered marketplace, and amongst a variety of sponsors are sporting apparel brands – one of which is market leader Nike.

This isn’t going to be a rant about how Nike’s partnership with Kaepernick making a political statement is hypocritical given their ethically dubious production standards. We’ve all probably heard and thought about that by now. There’s a worthy and substantial debate that can be had on this topic, but that’s not the focus of this article.

What fascinates me about this campaign, is that to this very day, people don’t actually know the remarkable story of Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee.

Kaepernick will go down as one of the most inspiring athletes of his generation (you can learn his back story in much more detail than I’ll go into here). And what is truly captivating about Kaepernick taking a knee, is that this decision tells us a story about the importance of openness, respect and compassion in driving meaningful change in a polarized political landscape.

What makes Kaepernick’s story truly amazing:

In the 2016 NFL pre-season games, Kaepernick began to sit during the national anthem in protest of police brutality towards black Americans.

Shortly after, Nate Boyer – a former Green Beret and college football player – wrote an open letter to Kaepernick in the Army Times explaining the message this sent to veterans noting: “Even though my initial protest was one of anger… I’m trying to listen to what you’re saying and why you’re doing it”.

At this point, Kaepernick had Boyer driven three hours to San Diego to talk prior to the final 49’s preseason game. Upon arrival, the two spoke at length, Kaepernick listening in detail to Boyer sharing stories of battlefield and his perspective on the issue. He asked Boyer “what can I do”, and Boyer had a few ideas.

Then, at the final preseason game with Boyer at his side, Kaepernick elects to kneel rather than sit – something American servicemen do as a signal of respect when they hand a folded flag that rests on the casket of a deceased serviceman/woman to the bereaved.

The rest is history.

What Nike, W+K and we all missed out on

Now a lot has been written about earned media and a momentary share price decline for Nike, but nobody has really been talking about the missed opportunity here.

If Nike really wanted to create social impact and champion leading athletes, this feels like a vital component in the story. It reflects what the best sports and athletes at their finest teach us – that embracing others with different background, experiences and viewpoints enables us to all learn and grow for the better.

Whilst the current print execution is short and succinct, it’s seen a heap of people head off and burn their Nike kicks, as many believe Kaepernick is disrespectful towards American values, veterans and those in service, who apparently fight to protect the First Amendment and American way of life.

Perhaps if the above was conveyed through some of the creative, there might have been less of a backlash from those with the gripe about Kaepernick disrespecting those in the military, and more people may have had a paradigm shift on Kaepernick’s character and how he has conducted himself.

There’s no doubting that some of W+K and Nike’s work is as good as it gets (a personal favourite is their hair tingling Together execution with Lebron and the Cavs), but unless they’ve got some magic up their sleeves still to come, it just feels like America and Nike could have benefited much more from this kind of an approach if due consideration was given to the above.

As a side note, it’s interesting to see what Boyer had to say about the campaign. In a recent interview, he suggested it was “probably a good business decision” but also believes a lot of people in the veteran community would have taken offence to the idea of “sacrificing everything” in the copy rather than what Kaepernick’s actions stand for.

Daniel Bluzer-Fry is a senior strategy consultant at The Lab.


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