“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
These words, embossed over a close-up photograph of Colin Kaepernick, have already created debate over what many consider a controversial choice by sports company Nike to feature the American football player as a new face of the brand.
"Is it about marketing, or is it about raising awareness and constructive dialogue?"
When companies such as Nike take such actions it raises familiar questions: is it about marketing, or is it about raising awareness and constructive dialogue about the roles and responsibilities of companies and athletes in promoting different causes, including on human rights?
Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback from 2011 to 2016, sparked controversy during the 2016 season when he kneeled during the national anthem in a protest he said was to highlight racial injustices and police brutality in the United States. The move was met with criticism from many fans, and notably President Trump, who called on NFL owners to fire players who “disrespected” the flag. Kaepernick’s contract was not renewed in 2017, and he has been unsigned– a free agent – since.
Kaepernick’s protest has been compared by some to the ‘Black Power Salute’ of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. There, African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medalists respectively in the 200 metre event, received their medals shoeless. The absence of footwear was to represent the poverty faced by African Americans and was accompanied by a raised black-gloved fist salute that lasted the entirety of the US national anthem. Standing with them in solidarity was silver medalist Peter Norman, wearing a badge that read "Olympic Project for Human Rights". The protest was regarded by some as an unwelcome politicisation of sport, much like the divided reaction to Kaepernick’s kneeling.
"Kaepernick’s protest has been compared by some to the ‘Black Power Salute’ of the 1968 Olympics."
As with that historic moment in Mexico, Kaepernick decided to use his elite platform to draw the attention of millions to the importance of fundamental rights and dignity. While the NFL did not fire players who protested, they did rule that all players must stand during the anthem –a policy that has since been revoked following negotiations with the players union.
Much like Kaepernick’s protest, Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign has sparked strong debate and mixed reviews. The company’s share price closed 3.2% down on the day the campaign was launched. The hashtags #JustBurnIt and #NikeBoycott began trending, with images of people cutting the “swoosh” logo out of their Nike socks and burning their Nike shoes and apparel (in some cases while wearing them), spreading across the internet.
But few can claim Nike doesn’t know its brand.
In spite of the backlash, the new campaign earned more than $43 million in media exposure in its first 24 hours, and sales have gone up 31% in the days following. Nike also knows its audience. The majority of its under 35, ethnically diverse consumer market is thought to support the campaign.
Nike is no stranger to controversy. The brand has a history of signing controversial athletes, but this campaign sends a different message. Nike is taking a stand, transforming the “it” of “Just Do It” into something bigger than sports and athleticism.
The “Dream Crazy” campaign video evokes sport’s potential to move the world forward, to mean something more than points and records alone. It says of LeBron James, one of the featured athletes: “Don’t become the best basketball player on the planet. Be bigger than basketball” emphasising his charitable and community work off the court.
"The fact that Nike is almost certainly being commercially savvy does not preclude it from making a stand for rights and equality at the same time."
The campaign also features tennis legend Serena Williams, who has also been involved in several recent controversies. The first surrounding the institutional reaction of tennis to her outfit for the 2018 French Open – a black catsuit, designed by none other than Nike. The outfit acknowledged the struggle of a difficult pregnancy and the strength of women and mothers facing similar challenges. It was so highly engineered and designed that it assisted against Williams’ post-pregnancy risk of blood clots. Despite this, the suit was met with criticism from French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli who announced a change to the dress code following the match, stating that players “must respect the game and the place.” Williams was unfazed and continued to challenge the norm by wearing a black tutu, again designed in collaboration with Nike, to the US Open two months later.
While new and provocative to some, the “Dream Crazy” campaign is part of Nike’s DNA. Similar campaigns in the past, including its 2017 “Equality” campaign, called for equality and non-discrimination both within and beyond sport. This attitude is further reflected in Nike becoming the first global, mainstream company to unveil an athletic hijab with the Nike Pro Hijab launched in 2017. The fact that Nike almost certainly did this as a commercially savvy move, recognising a market opportunity after athletes such as Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir fought FIBA to overturn their ban on religious headgear, does not preclude it from making a stand for rights and equality at the same time.
Nike is clearly appealing to a growing niche market – whether through providing products empowering more women to participate in sport by giving them a choice, challenging norms around gender and sexuality, or just by being a brand for athletes unwilling to simply “play the game”.
"We might see more and more companies making a stand on a range of human rights issues."
In a world where national politics has taken a populist and nationalist turn in many countries, we might see more and more companies making a stand on a range of human rights issues, even as many governments are unable or unwilling to do the same. Some countries for example still mandate religious headgear for women, yet for many women equality means having the choice of whether to wear headgear at all. Companies are also taking a stand on LGBTI+ rights with 100 leading companies signing up to the UN’s principles on business and LGBTI+ rights. It all boils down to a respect for basic human dignity.
Businesses that take such a public stand should be applauded. But to “walk the talk” they must also implement human rights throughout their global business management. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provide the baseline framework of due diligence expected of all companies. The Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (the next edition of which is due to be published this November) are intended to encourage good performance and hold companies like Nike and its global competitors to account, by ranking them against this framework.
"Businesses that take such a public stand should be applauded, but they must also implement human rights throughout their global business management."
The newly established Centre for Sport and Human Rights is a new resource that will work with all of those committed to respecting rights and promoting the positive values of sport.