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Nike’s stroke of genius with Kaepernick already paying off

But Russell Okung wonders how the NFL and its competitors will react

In a stroke of genius that would make a chess master proud, Nike made a move last week that simultaneously put the NFL on its heels and made competitors squirm.

Most important, the sports apparel giant helped protesting NFL players remind the public that their protests are not an attack on the military but a demand for social justice and an end to social inequality.

Nike celebrated the 30th anniversary of its “Just do it” slogan with an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback who is being blackballed — so it appears — by the NFL.

In 2016, Kaepernick became the first NFL player to protest racial inequality and police brutality by taking a knee during the national anthem before games.

The impact of the Nike campaign is being felt from boardrooms to locker rooms. For players who have been criticized for protesting, the Nike campaign is a tremendous boost.

“Even though players are being manipulated and coerced into acting a certain way, brands understand and recognize that this can be one of the greatest business opportunities of all time.”

“This definitely gives us momentum moving forward,” said Russell Okung, the veteran offensive tackle for the Los Angeles Chargers. I spoke with Okung on Sunday after the Chargers’ loss to the visiting Kansas City Chiefs.

Okung has been among a handful of players who consistently have spoken up about the social justice imperative of the protests. He also feels there should be no deal with the NFL until it ends its boycott against Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid.

“Even though players are being manipulated and coerced into acting a certain way, brands understand and recognize that this can be one of the greatest business opportunities of all time.”

In fact, critics have pointed out that Nike’s gambit was a shrewd business move. Of course it was. Corporations do nothing unless it makes business sense. In this case, there was a convergence of good business and social activism for a company whose highest-profile athletes are black men and women.

Damn right it makes good business sense.

Apex Marketing Group reported that the controversy surrounding Nike has led to the company receiving $43 million worth of media exposure.

“Nike did their market research. They knew that an investment in Colin Kaepernick was an investment in being on the right side of history, which correlates to millennials, their attitudes and views,” Okung said.

The Nike campaign puts pressure on competitors, especially Adidas and Under Armour, to take a stand.

Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung raises his fist during the playing of the national anthem before the team’s NFL preseason football game against the Seattle Seahawks on Aug. 18 in Carson, California.

Photo by AP/Gregory Bull

“Companies are going to have to represent themselves in value and in deed,” Okung said. “You can’t say that you are interested in this and have an ambiguous stance on how you interact. Nike is in the forefront of that.”

Over the last year, the protesting players have been pummeled by the White House and its allies, who steered the conversation away from social justice. They insist that the protests are a slap at the military, even as many military veterans, especially black veterans, have said they do not see the protests as an affront.

What is an affront is the continued mass incarceration of young black and brown men and women. The prison industry preys on the poor, destroys individual lives and communities and erodes the nation’s moral fiber.

The United States has the world’s highest rate of incarceration. According to Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, the prison population of the United States increased from 200,000 in the 1970s to more than 2.3 million today.

There are nearly 6 million people on probation or on parole. One in every 15 people born in the United States in 2001 is expected to go to prison; 1 in every 3 black male babies born in this century is expected to be incarcerated. One in 3.

Many NFL players have relatives who have been involved with the legal system. Some have been crushed by it. “The NFL is made up of almost 79 percent black males,” Okung said. “These are issues that matter to a lot of us.”

In Nike, the players get one of the sports industry’s most powerful allies. Last March, the NFL and Nike signed an eight-year extension that will begin when the current one ends in 2020, ending in 2028. Nike provides all 32 teams with game-day uniforms and sideline apparel with the Nike swoosh logo. Nike is a powerful ally with a powerful megaphone.

“Nike is a corporate sponsor. They have legitimate power,” Okung said. “When a company like Nike moves, the league pays attention because Nike puts dollars on the line.”

Nike’s stock initially fell more than 3 percent after the announcement of the Kaepernick endorsement contract.

One school, the College of the Ozarks in Missouri, announced that it will no longer wear Nike-designed uniforms.

I was curious to see how the NFL would respond to a business partner that announced to the world that it supports a player the league refuses to hire.

“Nike is a corporate sponsor. They have legitimate power,” Okung said. “When a company like Nike moves, the league pays attention, because Nike puts dollars on the line.”

The NFL issued a remarkably enlightened, even conciliatory, statement last week.

“The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action,” Jocelyn Moore NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs said in the statement. Moore is African-American.

Earlier this year the NFL agreed to a deal that gave more than $80 million to the Players Coalition, a group that does not include Kaepernick. The money is designed to assist efforts and programs to combat social inequities. But the gestures and the money have the appearance of hush money designed to drive a wedge between Kaepernick and other players.

How can the league say it sympathizes with players while it banishes a player who symbolizes the very cause the players embrace? The players should not engage with the NFL — certainly not take its money — until the league makes peace with Kaepernick and Reid.

“In order for us to move forward, the league has to get past facilitation,” Okung said.

He was referring to the window-dressing initiatives of players going on rides with police into high-crime neighborhoods.

The cornerstone of Nike’s new campaign is risk: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Most athletes are in no position to risk anything.

Many are making enormous amounts of money for the first, — and, for many, the last — time. ”We are black men in America looking for a job,” Okung said. “It’s hard to be put in a position where your political views can put you in situations where you won’t have a job.”

He added, “I imagine that a lot of players feel pressure. They want to stand up. They want to speak to this issue, but just like the rest of us, they have families to feed.”

While the White House has painted itself into a political corner on this issue, Nike has applied moral pressure on the NFL to line up on the right side of history.

If it truly wants to be part of the solution, the league will move beyond empty gestures and embrace the social justice initiative.

Just do it.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.