The Ethical Mojo of Nike Co-Founder, Phil Knight: When ‘Just Do It’ is More Than Just a Brand Motto

Phil Knight Feature
Credit: BELatina/BrandStar

It’s no secret that Colin Kaepernick’s silent 2016 protest during the national anthem at an NFL preseason game caused an uproar. Two years later, Nike’s 2018 decision to feature Kaepernick as the voice and face of their 30th anniversary advertisements had people talking all over again; and more recently, fellow Nike spokesperson Serena Williams not only showed her support for Colin Kaepernick, but came out with her own campaign that ended with the powerful call to rise: “So if they want to call you crazy? Fine. Show them what crazy can do.”

Kaepernick said that by taking a knee he was taking a stand against police brutality and standing for victims of police violence. As a result of his protest people began to burn their Kaepernick jersey, the NFL passed an official rule that all on field players and personnel are required to stand during the national anthem, and cost Kaepernick his job as an official NFL player. In 2016, Kaepernick was the Quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers but come 2017, he filed a lawsuit against the NFL accusing the institution of colluding to bar any of the official teams from signing him as a free agent. In his lawsuit Kaepernick stated that he felt he was being penalized by the NFL for her political views. The NFL tried to have the lawsuit thrown out but in February 2019 the two parties settled their lawsuit in a quiet settlement.

Unpacking the Kaepernick Conflict

Kaepernick’s protest caused the country’s conversation about police brutality and institutionalized violence against Black and brown people to reach a fever pitch. Some viewed Kaepernick’s decision to not stand for the National Anthem as disrespectful against veterans and military personnel, even calling his protest “un-American.” This point of view seemed to focus more on the National Anthem than the message of disproportionate violence that takes place in the country against Black and Brown people. However, others — including veterans — felt that Kaepernick was utilizing the very right that some argue veterans defend, the right of free speech. Some veterans gathered on #VetsforKaepernick to show their support and to reiterate that the reason for the protest was institutionalized violence, not a disdain for veterans.

However, two years later in an unlikely public dissent from institutional upset about the protest, Nike’s 30th anniversary print and commercial ads feature Kaepernick speaking about standing up for one’s beliefs and were approved by Nike co-founder, Philip Knight.

Even President Obama shared his opinion on the protest stating that Kaepernick was inspiring necessary and difficult conversations, saying: “I’d rather have young people that are engaged in the argument and trying to think through how they can be part of our democratic process than people just sitting on the sidelines not participating at all.” Not only were young people having these discussions — everyone was.

Philip Knight Gets Woke

In a piece published in Fast Company, Knight explained that his decision to use Kaepernick in the company’s ad was in fact inspired by a difficult and eye-opening conversation he had with NBA player Lebron James. Knight and James were discussing their sons getting their driver’s licenses and how that was nerve wracking for them both as parents. However, James went on to explain that he was fearful for his son because there is always a chance that as a Black man, his son might get shot by police. “I thought of the top hundred worries I have, and that doesn’t make my list. That was a real eye-opener,” Knight says.

Lebron James Phil Knight Conversation
Photo Credit LeBron James wears a shirt to call for action on gun safety following a mass shooting in November 2018

James’ fears are completely justified. Philando Castile, Willie McCoy, and Terence Crutcher were all Black men shot and killed by police officers in incidents involving vehicles. (please note: distressing or triggering materials might be found at the links above). In addition to being killed by police officers, Black people and are at higher risk for being pulled over, ticketed, and searched than their white counterparts, found a study conducted by Opening Policing, The Knight Foundation, Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, and Stanford Computational Policy Lab.

Knight said that he couldn’t care less about the negativity the brand has received as a result of their ad decision. Taking a risk and standing for something – especially as a major international brand – means opening up yourself to even more public ridicule. His disposition: it doesn’t matter how many people hate your brand as long as enough people love it.

Perhaps in an almost comedic genius stroke of business savvy, Knight knew this and Nike still secured an 8 year uniform contract with the NFL worth $1 Billion after releasing their advertisements featuring Kaepernick. The contract is to outfit all 32 teams with game day uniforms and sideline apparel.

Is Nike Still Doing the Right Thing?

Hopefully, Nike’s stand to do the right thing and support people speaking up for the rights of others will once and for all happen to their manufacturing and supply chain practices.

In the early 1990’s reports, studies, and articles began speaking on the horrible sweatshop and below international wages for the workers in Asian countries making Nike shoes. Some even found that Nike was using child labor to make their shows. According to a Business Insider piece published in May 2013, Nike took several steps — and missteps — to improve the working conditions of its international manufacturing practices. Nike had part in establishing the Fair Labor Association, which establishes baseline agreements and more humane practices for international workers (one of these baseline agreements being a still questionable 60-hour work week). They increased transparency by publishing their audits of working conditions in their international factories and reports detailing their shortcomings.

However, as the Chinese government passed regulations to improve worker conditions, which include higher regulated minimum wages, better working conditions, and reasonable work hour expectations Nike has once again moved its factories to a country with more lax laws: Vietnam. Some argue that these laws do not help labor workers in China, who need it most. But one thing is certain, Nike is moving to the arguably less regulated labor market of Vietnam for more of its production needs.

Manufacturing Map Transparency
Photo Credit

Just like Kaepernick’s protest, policy and labor is still divided on how the move to Vietnam could either positively or negatively affect labor workers. In 2017, protest around The United States, in Bangalore, and Honduras all alleged that the brand is still using unethical practices and not monitoring the practices of their factories like they allege they are. One thing that remains certain is that Nike — and all large brands —  still has a way to go in making sure the labor conditions in their factories are favorable for all their workers.

As a brand born out of Knight’s car’s trunk while he was a student at one of the most affluent business schools in The United States, Stanford Business School, Nike has taken the world by storm. Not only is the brand an international phenomenon; it has dealt with negative press for more than two decades and taken strides to correct their practices – slower than some would like all while landing some of the biggest contracts with the NFL and NBA.

Taking risks and trying to practice transparency while having a stand in one of the country’s most polarizing conversations – Kaepernick’s protest and reason for protest — makes them a brand that continues to try and strive and understand the importance of voice and freedom of expression. As Serena Williams says in her own Nike ad: “if we dream of equal opportunity, we’re delusional. When we stand for something we’re unhinged,” her attempt to move the needle even further on the topic of not only race, but also gender.

Hopefully, more difficult conversations will take place for Knight and Nike at large to ensure that they are taking a stand with and for everyone and not just major athletes.

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