“Just Don’t Buy It”: Nike Controversy Is About More Than Sneakers

nike-logoBelow is my column in The Hill Newspaper.  Even after Nike embraced Colin Kaepernick, I was flabbergasted by the decision of Nike to pull sneakers showing the early American flag because Kaepernick found it offensive.  Supporters of Kaepernick has insisted that the flag is now a symbol of white supremacists.  I do not know about the adoption by white supremacists but I am familiar with the flag being used by prior protesters  ranging from Civil Rights marchers to anti-Vietnam activists as well as displayed at events like President Barack Obama’s inauguration.  Today, the Anti-Defamation League added its voice in saying that  “We view it as essentially an innocuous historical flag. It’s not a thing in the white supremacist movement.”

Nevertheless, Nike has clearly decided that it will write off those citizens who feel strongly about the flag as a national symbol and play to Kaepernick’s base.  The company’s sales went up seven percent after its controversial decision to hire Kaepernick for its campaign in 2018.   Yet, the move has also hurt its brand with a sizable number of Americans and the latest move will likely weigh heavily on many not to buy Nike products. Many of us are not inclined to buy Nike products in light of its extreme position on the flag.

Here is the column:

When it comes to free speech, Nike seems to have new slogan of “Just Don’t Do It.” This month, stores around the country received new Nike sneakers for the July 4th holiday, featuring an image of the Betsy Ross flag. Former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick saw the 18th century flag image and was deeply offended. That was all that it took for Nike to order stores to return the shoes and not to sell them.

No one is suggesting that we are at risk of moving from rounding up sneakers to rounding up speakers. Nike is a private company entitled to curtail its own speech, while the First Amendment bars any government censorship. However, the incident captured perfectly the new view of free speech taking hold on campuses and across the country. It is not enough to protest the flag or the national anthem. It is necessary to prevent others from wearing or seeing the flag you deem offensive. Nike rounded up the sneakers, stating that it decided not to release the sneakers because they feature “the old version of the American flag.” Nike seemed to suggest it was evident that an American flag on a sneaker was obviously offensive.

For full disclosure, I did not agree with Kaepernick on his anthem protests and previously addressed the claim that professional football players and other employees have a right to engage in political protests of this kind. There are indeed legitimate and unresolved issues concerning race in our country, but the flag is as much a symbol of our aspirations as it is of our history. It embodies the very values that Kaepernick claims are denied to African American citizens, such as due process, equal justice, and equal protection. It also symbolizes our core democratic belief in free speech.

Many across the country celebrated the decision by Nike to destroy the sneakers and noted that the flag has been used by white nationalists. However, the flag also was used by civil rights marchers and Vietnam War protesters. It clearly means different things to different people. However, in this case, the only view deemed valid was that of Kaepernick and his supporters. Nike surprised many last year when it embraced Kaepernick as a spokesman and highlighted his controversial protests, despite the opposition of a majority of football fans, who had a legitimate gripe in this move that tied products to a political movement rejected by many consumers. Nike now has gone even further, refusing to allow its own customers to purchase shoes that Kaepernick views as offensive.

The trend is all too familiar to those of us who have watched free speech on campuses erode under expanding speech codes and rules. This trend began with changes advocated as protections for minority students in the creation of “free speech zones” that confined any expression of political or social viewpoints, as well as “safety zones” to protect students from ideas or images deemed offensive. It evolved into preventing others from espousing offensive ideas or images, from regulating Halloween costumes to rules against the undefined category of microaggressions, or speech that is not expressly racist, sexist, or offensive yet is viewed that way by another student. Finally, faculty members and students began blocking speakers from campuses to prevent others from hearing opposing views.

It is also a familiar trend in Europe, where free speech is being rapidly curtailed in countries like France, England, and Germany as people are routinely prosecuted for speech deemed offensive or inciting. Preachers have been arrested for publicly calling homosexuality to be a sin, while protesters have been arrested for supporting the boycott of Israel. Once you start regulating speech, the taste for censorship becomes insatiable.

Kaepernick is the embodiment of this twisted view of free speech. When Nike featured him in its “Just Do It” 30th anniversary campaign, it added the slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” One can certainly disagree with a company associating its products with a controversial political movement. Nike insisted it was not taking sides but celebrating the right to protest. Now, it seems to be following another mantra, “Believe in something. Even if it means silencing everyone else.”

That distinction between speaking and silencing has long been lost on campuses. A few years ago, University of California at Santa Barbara professor Mireille Miller Young led her students in attacking a pro-life display on campus and assaulted two young women behind it. Despite pleading guilty to criminal assault, she was defended by professors and students who called such displays “triggering” and akin to “terrorism.” She not only was not fired but has been celebrated as a hero, including being honored as a speaker at the University of Oregon as a symbol of “the radical potential of black feminism in the work that we do on campus and in our everyday lives.” Other faculty and students have led attacks on speakers on various campuses around the country without punishment.

I recently had a debate with a key supporter of criminal speech codes, who insisted that preventing others from speaking out is an act of free speech. He insisted that professors and students who block or heckle speakers into silence are exercising speech. This concept of silencing speakers as free speech is catching on around the country. All you have to do is call out speech by someone else to be triggering or offensive.

Over a dozen college presidents and members of the Higher Education Council of San Antonio recently concluded that there is no free speech protection for any words that spread, provoke, or create “animosity and hostility.” When conservatives were invited to come speak on campus at the University of California at Berkeley, more than 200 faculty members signed a letter calling for classes to be canceled and declaring that “there are forms of speech that are not protected under the First Amendment.”

Politicians and pundits have followed suit. Former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont governor Howard Dean declared that hate speech is not actually protected under the First Amendment, while CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour asked former FBI director James Comey why he did not arrest Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign for hateful speech.

The lesson clearly has taken hold with students. Student editors like those at Wellesley College have declared that “hostility is warranted” against conservative speakers and that “shutting down rhetoric that undermines the existence and rights of others is not a violation of free speech” but is itself free speech. Polls show almost half of college students now believe hate speech is not protected under the Constitution, and one in three students believe violence is warranted to stop speech deemed hateful.

The “Just Don’t Do It” attitude will resonate with some who believe free speech means silencing others. Kaepernick has finally completed this inevitable cycle. He insisted that he was being punished for speaking in protest. Now, he seeks to prevent others from wearing the flag. It is akin to not only demanding to be able to kneel at football games but to prevent others from standing. Of course, there remain other ways of speaking. When it comes to Nike products, maybe try the slogan “Just Don’t Buy It.”

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Public of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.

69 thoughts on ““Just Don’t Buy It”: Nike Controversy Is About More Than Sneakers”

  1. How does stitching the 13 colonies flag into shoes fit into flag etiquette?

    At this point I’m fine with them no longer selling the shoes. Shoes get filthy and are tossed in the garbage after a few seasons of hard use. This original symbol of the United States and the liberty it stands for should not be put at risk of a dog poop smear or mud puddle stain.

  2. Crapneck must be the CMO of Nike. Chief morality officer.

    1. Good to know about New Balance. I just got some made-in-the-USA Danners.

      1. I think I’ll get a pair of Betsy Ross patches to sew onto my new shoes.

  3. By the logic of the Left:

    The destruction of thousands of Nike shoes to please Kaepernick and his foolish SJW followers was wasteful and not environmentally conscious. It wasted leather for nothing, sending part of those animals into the landfill instead of onto feet. It wasted fossil fuels in their manufacture and shipping. It wasted employee’s time. It wasted an opportunity to at least donate shoes to people who couldn’t afford them.

  4. Left-wing Fascism:



    Anexample of Fascist tendencies is the use of violence or harassment to try to force one’s view upon others, i.e. Antifa, ironically.

    Note that Fascism placed nation and race above individual worth. Dissent was crushed. Today, we see the Left’s valuation scale in identity politics, where your worth is determined by your race, among other superficial attributes. Conservative dissent is attacked, often violently.

    1. fascism noun
      fas·​cism | \ ˈfa-ˌshi-zəm also ˈfa-ˌsi- \
      Definition of fascism
      1 often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition
      2 : a tendency toward or actual exercise of strong autocratic or dictatorial control
      early instances of army fascism and brutality
      — J. W. Aldridge

      You will note that American conservatives espouse none of this. Instead their platform is for the government to stay within its lane. The Left works for the government to have more authority over the individual, going so far as to ban plastic straws and bags in some areas, or to use sin taxes to try to control how much soda individuals drink.

      Antifa forcibly suppresses opposition. People like the owner of the Red Hen who harassed Sarah Sanders and followed her into the street are trying to forcibly suppress opposing viewpoints.

  5. Of course it is more than about just sneakers. It is about two incompatible philosophies and ways of life. I fear that this will not end well.

    To good, decent old school liberals such as JT, I say wake up! The new left will be calling you and others who support traditional free speech “nazis” just as they do Tucker Carlson and others who disagree with them. Your progressive views on other issues will not save you.

    To conservatives such as those from groups such as the NRA and Heritage Foundation, you will not be allowed to make a separate peace with the left.

    I actually welcome this split and hope it can be done peacefully. I fear the left and their antifa red guards and jacobins will not allow this.

    What will be the breaking point? I do not know the answer, but it is coming.


    1. I’m ok with it not being peaceful. let the saboteurs and traitors be arrested and given a fair trial prior to their severe punishments!

      the left has gone from doxxing private people and calling them racists to doxxing border patrol and calling it racist, even though that makes little sense given the huge representation of hispanics among border patrol.

      well, its time for the FBI to get off their azzes and go to work on these people who surely used wire fraud and breached various other forms of cybersecurity laws to do their dirty work. earn your pay FBI and protect the honorable border patrol from left wing intimidation!

  6. A few thoughts. First, Nike knows their base; those with small intellects and large enough resources to overspend on a product that is cheap to produce in third world hell holes. Second, the violence which is inspired by the far left is only part one of this play. Many on the other side have far greater ability to return harm for harm but have shown tremendous restraint. When their patience evaporates, then the show will begin.

    1. Perhaps those young people have the money to spend on Nikes because they are considered helpless dependents until age 26. I wonder how many Nike customers are still getting support from their parents.

  7. Cruz punted Kaepernick into the end zone. Kaepernick’s infamous tweet was:

    “What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? This Fourth of July is yours, not mine…There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody
    than are the people of these United States at this very hour.” – Frederick Douglass pic.twitter.com/IWLujGCJHn

    — Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) July 4, 2019

    Cruz tweeted back:

    “You quote a mighty and historic speech by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, but, without context, many modern readers will misunderstand. Two critical points:

    (1) This speech was given in 1852, before the Civil War, when the abomination of slavery still existed. Thanks to Douglass and so many other heroes, we ended that grotesque evil and have made enormous strides to protecting the civil rights of everybody.

    (2) Douglass was not anti-American; he was, rightly and passionately, anti-slavery. Indeed, he concluded the speech as follows:

    “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented, of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably, work the downfall of slavery. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from ‘the Declaration of Independence,’ the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”

    Cruz then said “Let me encourage everyone, READ THE ENTIRE SPEECH; it is powerful, inspirational, and historically important in bending the arc of history towards justice: https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/2945

    1. Kaepernick is welcome to pick up his tuchus and decamp to any latrine that will take him.

      You read his father’s Twitter feed, and you can see he learned this cr!p at home. Both parents are, by the way, from around Appleton, Wisconsin and decamped to Modesto, Ca. ca. 1995. What’s their excuse?

  8. Can someone make a simple patch of the Betsy Ross flag to cover the Nike symbols on all the crap we bought from this company? It would sell like hotcakes at Waffle House.

  9. It’s a good article but doesn’t name the culprit. The culprit is a radicalized, identity-politics promoting gang of leftists that have infiltrated the campuses and seized control of the Democratic Party who went along willingly. They hate the country and its values and present a threat every bit as existential as a foreign invasion. If it’s true that every generation has to re-fight the American Revolution against tyranny we have our Cornwallis’ and Burgoynes clearly arrayed before us.

    1. Cornwallis and Burgoyne were soldiers doing their job. Not our cause, but a defensible cause. A fat chunk of British North America remained loyal to the mother country.

      These cretins do not have a defensible cause. A just resolution is that they disappear.

      1. i agree these dogs are below the redcoats. tar and feather them for starters

    1. Olysmithy,
      Nike corporate executives are” plugged- in and we’ll attuned” in the important area of which a**es to kiss as it relates to their business.

      1. Well-attuned, not “we’ll attuned” …..I still haven’t found the buried site to disable the Autocorrect on this new cell phone, a Moto piece of crap.

  10. My opinion: Nike management’s not stupid enough to actually buy into Kaepernick’s epiphany about the Betsy Ross flag. They are willing to take a bath on that run of shoes because they see an untapped market of rabid America-haters and they want antifa’s shoe budget..

    We live in a country with a locally tolerated corps of violent leftist brownshirts (well, black hoodies, but whatever). If the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security are acting on the threat posed by antifa (Portland’s mayor and cops won’t) it’s well-concealed from the casual news reader.

    A teenage boy in south Texas wearing antifa gear took his father’s gun to school and murdered fellow students, and the wife of a Fox News journalist was menaced by antifa loyalists who entered her home. More recently, journalist Andy Ngo was kicked to the curb and beaten by antifa’s Portland branch. The mainstream media’s opinion leaders found this to be Andy Ngo’s fault for showing up to cover a story where he wasn’t liked.

    Seeming to be Colin Kaepernick’s puppet could be worth millions in sales from Nike to those who buy into the alt-left agenda. Antifa’s money could already be tied up in communist flags, concrete milkshake mix, muriatic acid and wax, but their wannabe fans might settle for a cheap black hoodie and a pair of Nike kicks.

    1. Crapneck is playing football yet? oh lol some career he has now

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