Nike's Kaepernick campaign puts NFL apparel deal in spotlight

Nike’s launch of a major marketing campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is currently suing the league’s 32 owners for collusion, came just months after the league extended its partnership with the apparel giant.

Announced last March, the deal established Nike as the official supplier of NFL uniforms and sideline gear through the 2028 season – an eight-year extension on the previous terms of the agreement. While financial terms were not disclosed, Nike is likely paying more than the $1.1 billion it reportedly paid when it originally secured exclusive NFL apparel rights in 2012.

Nike remains a top corporate sponsor even as Kaepernick, who will star in a campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of the brand’s “Just Do It” slogan, accuses league officials of conspiring to keep him off the field for his role in popularizing player protests during the national anthem. The NFL appeared to support its corporate partner’s decision in a statement Tuesday.

“The National Football League believes in dialogue, understanding and unity. We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities,” said Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs. “The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

Kaepernick started a nationwide debate during the 2016 NFL season when, as a member of the San Francisco 49ers, he became the first player to kneel during the national anthem to protest social injustice and police brutality in America. Protests by Kaepernick and other NFL players drew the ire of President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the league’s handling of the issue and called on owners to fire any player who kneels during the anthem.

The 30-year-old quarterback has not played in the NFL since he opted out of his deal with the 49ers at the end of the 2016 season, despite solid statistical performance on the field and an appearance in Super Bowl XLVII. An independent arbitrator ruled last month that his collusion grievance could proceed to trial.

Nike’s decision to feature Kaepernick in its campaign drew a mixed reaction on social media, with some commentators lauding the apparel brand’s decision and others calling for a boycott. Kaepernick has been a Nike athlete since 2011.

Nike shares fell more than 2% in trading Tuesday.

This offseason, the NFL said players would have the option of either standing on the sideline for the national anthem or waiting in the locker room. The league is currently reviewing that policy after criticism from the NFL players union.

The NFL enacted a new social justice platform last January that would contribute at least $89 million in funding toward community outreach and other efforts.