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Nike’s ad featuring Colin Kaepernick isn’t risky at all; it’s business

The multibillion-dollar sports apparel company knows just what it’s doing

“Let everyone else call your idea crazy … just keep going. Don’t stop. Don’t even think about stopping until you get there, and don’t give much thought to where ‘there’ is. Whatever comes, just don’t stop.”

Those words were from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who wrote them in his 2016 memoir Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, which is essentially the origin story of how Nike became a multibillion-dollar company and one of the most important cultural forces in sports.

Although Knight is serving as chairman emeritus these days, his revolutionary spirit is deeply embedded in the company’s DNA. So you can count on two things when it involves Nike: It always has a plan and it specializes in betting on itself.

That’s why the decision to make Colin Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary campaign for its iconic slogan, “Just Do It,” isn’t really a gamble at all. It’s just another example of Nike’s astute, calculated nature.

It would be naive to see Nike expanding its business relationship with Kaepernick as a symbol that it isn’t afraid of backlash or Donald Trump, and it believes in the fight against racial injustice. Nike signed Kaepernick for one simple reason: to make money.

Kaepernick’s new deal with Nike is reportedly worth millions and will include him having his own branded line. Kaepernick and Nike have been in business together since 2011, and despite all the controversy that has surrounded Kaepernick, the company never severed ties with him.

Know why? Nike knows Kaepernick has become one of the most recognizable faces in America. He moves the needle. He’s become an icon. He represents the very culture that Nike wants to continue to monetize.

According to Bloomberg, the Kaepernick ad generated $43 million in media exposure in its first 19 hours, and more than half of the responses to the ad were positive.

There has been an overwhelming amount of attention paid to the people who don’t support Kaepernick, who aren’t attending or watching NFL games. Lost in the endless conversations about Kaepernick are the people who support him and are inspired by how he put his NFL career in jeopardy. Their buying power has been largely ignored. Until now.

Nike knows Kaepernick’s supporters buy shoes too.

If jersey sales are any indication of Kaepernick’s market appeal, Nike made a great business decision. A month after Kaepernick started his protest, Kaepernick had the top-selling jersey in the NFL. Last year, Kaepernick’s jersey was in the top 50 among NFL players despite the fact he wasn’t even on an NFL roster. If Nike had dropped Kaepernick, Adidas and Puma reportedly were waiting in line to sign him.

It’s always business. Never personal.

The loud critics of Kaepernick, the few morons who burned their Nikes and cut the swoosh off their clothing just for 10 seconds of cheap fame, aren’t who Nike cares about. It cares about its core audience, the people who turned Nike into a powerful, cultural brand. They connect with Kaepernick. They love his style, his rebelliousness, outspokenness and authenticity. They like that he stands for something and that he’s willing to take on the NFL’s power structure. He moves culture forward in a way that is unprecedented.

This isn’t to diminish or downplay the seriousness of the issues that Kaepernick is protesting about, but somewhere along the way Kaepernick’s activism became a uniquely powerful brand.

Cynics, of course, are hard at work trying to paint Kaepernick as an opportunist. That brings to mind a conversation I had recently with Tommie Smith, the former Olympic track athlete who, along with teammate John Carlos, was sent home from the 1968 Olympics for raising a fist during the national anthem while they were on the medal stand. Carlos and Smith were vilified. Smith said that when he returned to the United States, he couldn’t find work and struggled to support his family.

There is nothing wrong with Kaepernick cashing in on the platform he’s built. Without money, Kaepernick wouldn’t have the leverage or the finances to continue his commitment to social justice issues. Nowhere in the activist handbook does it say that you have to be broke to be down with the cause. That’s something Nike and Kaepernick both understand.

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.