Nike nearly cut Colin Kaepernick from its roster of sponsored athletes before eventually deciding to include the controversial free-agent NFL quarterback in a new set of advertisements, according to The New York Times.
The sportswear giant has drawn scrutiny for featuring Kaepernick, the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem, as part of a national marketing campaign that marks the 30th anniversary of the iconic “Just do it” slogan. CEO Mark Parker indicated that the publicity nonetheless benefited Nike. The company saw “a real uptick in traffic and engagement, both socially and commercially,” following the launch of the campaign, Parker told analysts during an earnings call this week.
“We know it’s resonated actually quite strongly with consumers,” he added.
Nike reportedly came close to severing ties with Kaepernick amid backlash from some NFL fans over national anthem protests that spread across the league last season. In 2017, Nike officials debated whether to drop the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, the Times report said, citing two sources with knowledge of the discussions.
A top communications executive at the Beaverton, Oregon-based company persuaded colleagues to instead keep Kaepernick on board, fearing negative publicity that could follow if Nike cut him, according to the report.
Nike didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson told the Times, “It would be normal for a number of people to offer different perspectives,” adding that “final decisions are made as a group.”
Kaepernick, who signed up with Nike after the 2011 NFL Draft, helped lead the 49ers to the Super Bowl in 2013. He lost playing time during the 2015 and 2016 seasons after struggling on the field, and he opted out of his contract to become a free agent in 2017.
Nike shares fell 1.3 percent on Wednesday. The stock has gained about 33 percent since the start of the year.