“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. One minor correction, to the statement in the cumn that “Nike is a private company”.
    Nike is a publically traded company owned by the stockholders. Of course, that does not change their freedom as a corporate company to moonlight as a political advocate.
    Nike’s product-in-the works could be the new “Black Flag” shoe, although there may be trademark complications there.

      1. We should start a grassroots campaign to find serious social justice fault with every single Nike design they come out with to replace the Betsy Ross shoes. For instance, white shoes are clearly symbolic of the patriarchy. Black icons are tokenism. Leather isn’t vegan. Plastic is bad for the environment and contributes to the pollution of the ocean. All the shoes made in sweatshops. Oooooooh, we should send an undercover reporter into their factories in China. I wonder if the Nike store managers reports on employees to the social scoring department.

        We can do this all day. Nike won’t be able to put out a new shoe again.

        1. Leather shoes contribute to global warming.

          Nike is so doomed. They went down the SJW rabbit hole and there’s no coming out.

  2. Colin who? While not mentioning the name of a murderer prevents glorification of the person, not mentioning the C persons name does not give him a platform for bashing our great Country. He was a mediocre football player and is a sub-standard citizen.

  3. I think that Kaepernick is fundamentally unhappy and is expressing that by lashing out, rather than looking inward. He appears to be black and Jewish, and he was given up for adoption and raised by white parents. I’m sure he’s wondered a thousand times why his birth mother gave him away. Was she a young teen who made a “mistake?” Was she a victim of rape? Was there pressure to get rid of him because she was white and a black baby would shame her family? I think he’s hurt and angry and nothing will ever make him happy. He got some athletic prowess from his black ancestry, but not enough to keep him in the NFL. His Jewish side boosted his I.Q., but not enough to make him anything more than a social critic who can’t get it together to do anything more than complain. Not a great spokesman. When Nike eventually dumps him he’ll accuse them of racism too and try to damage their sales.

    1. Kaepernick has and is making a fortune off of his advocacy/ endorsements. Irrespective of the importance to him of sounding off as a political demagogue, there are advantages in seeing the bucks roll in without getting pounded on the gridiron.

  4. Wait. Freed slaves buy NIke products as Nike products are made with slave labor in foreign sweatshops?

    “We’ll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false.”

    – William Casey, CIA Director 1981-1987

  5. Thanks, Johnathan for sharing your thoughtful opinion. If all democrats were like you America would be a much better place.

  6. It has always been said that as one gets older one becomes fossilized in their beliefs and attitudes. “The younger generation is going to Hell in a hand basket!” so the elderly say. But what’s going on now is different. There’s a real danger that the US will cede it’s freedom to the lunatic fringe of the Left. They’re just as much a danger to our culture as the Far Right, who loom large in the scare tactics of the Uber Libs. It’s frightening that while most all agree that Right Wing militias camping in the woods are largely mythical, too many accept the rankings and attacks of the liberal. Campuses have been liberal for a long time, but now a person can be hurt by expressing conservative opinion. Yes, I’m an old fogey.

  7. Screw NIKI and their business losses. I hope they go out of business. There are plenty of casual shoe companies out there.

  8. He’s beginning to look a lot like Che Guevara. So, I will pay for his 1 way ticket to Cuba.

    1. Bob Miller,
      If you’re going to buy him a ticket, make it to Bolivia. 😉

  9. One of these days, these boots are gonna walk all over you
    131 million views & 22K comments….What do you think?

  10. If you want shoes made in America buy VANS. you will be far far closer. Nikes and whats the other one haven’t made a single shoelace in the Western Hemisphere for decades. Personally as Citizen of the USA I find NIKEs to be both offensive and have long gone out of my way never to buy from them as they are 100% un-American from Point Barrow and Ushuaia. The guy who started them was a coach for UofO in Eugene Oregon which should give you a huge tip where their loyalties to leftist socialism do not coincide with their rip off marketing model.

    by the way I am enjoying 4th of July as a Constitutional Centrist. What’s that got to do with kemperneck and Nike?

    1. Michael A.
      Years ago, when I was in my 20s and 30s, I’d run 7-8 mikes every other day. I had a pair of Nike Waffle Trainers that probably had 1500- 2000 miles on them before I “retired” them.
      Not sure where they were made back then, and the Nike company wasn’t a political /shoe company. There are so many good competitor shoe companies now that it’s easy to avoid Nike.
      A lot of purpose of buying these shoes today seems to be more of a “fashion statement” than for sports or workouts. Some of the people I see
      wearing the expensive shoes that are “in” look like they couldn’t run down the street to catch a bus.

  11. We are seeing the rise of Leftist fascism. Silencing others’ speech is not a form of free speech, but rather oppression. Obviously. Otherwise North Korea would be considered a Free Speech bastion of the world, because no one silences others’ speech like NoKo.

    I was a devoted Nike consumer. They were the only brand of athletic shoes I bought. Their athletic wear tops were great for riding in this heat. I have not bought a single Nike item since they took on Kaepernick. There is something very wrong with the idea that patriotism is negative.

    Nike would be hard pressed to defend the idea that the Betsy Ross flag is a racism symbol. The last I checked there were all of 2 questionable photos on the internet, and one of them was with teenagers. However thanks to Kaepernick and Nike, racists will probably now all rush towards the Betsy Ross flag that Nike made infamous.

    Who wants to wear a politicized shoe that represents the repression of free speech? When I see people walking around in new Nikes, I’ll think they oppose the First Amendment and are not patriotic.

    Who knows? Maybe this will be Nike’s niche, selling to ignorant young people demanding the erosion of their own freedoms.

    1. “We are seeing the rise of Leftist fascism.” Karen, who fancies herself a wise old owl

      Oh, you are not.

      (Karen sweeps in with a bit of 4th of July high-drama — saying in five paragraphs what she might better say in one.)

        1. “We are seeing the rise of Leftist fascism.” -hyperbole by Karen

          No, we are not.

  12. Gee, and here we were told it was about cops and not hating the flag or the anthem or the country. True colors are coming into focus.

  13. Hint: A lot of Nike sneaker products are manufactured in China & other sweat shops throughout Asia.

  14. I wouldn’t be so sure about ‘not’ rounding up speakers. Disempowering and disappearing conservative voices on social media sites seems to me to be a pretty good start. That and ridding California of those notorious mission bells along with every other piece of American history. interesting how progressives seem to be using 1984 (and Pol Pot) as a playbook.
    As it happens, I’m quite familiar with Kap’s entire career, including high school and college. Why did he sit for the Anthem? It’s no big mystery. His skills had deteriorated and he was pissed off, certain he’d be cut from the team so it was all a big F.U. to the team and the fans. There was nothing political about his act– not until he was told he better come up with a good reason. Although he had moments of brilliance in his early career, he’s inconsistent at best, tough to coach and definitely not a team player. He’s more of a distraction and a disruption.
    Nike could not have picked a worse spokesperson. And to listen to him on this issue? Pure SJW idiocy.

  15. Censorship is like the guillotine, it doesn’t discriminate between its victims.

    I wonder what Robespierre thought when his time came.

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