I’ve generally been a fan of the public stances that Nike has taken on various issues, and I was a fan of Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem at football games. I like when celebrities or athletes use the platform they have available to them to address social issues.
However, I don’t agree with the decision made by Nike this week to drop production of a sneaker that featured the Betsy Ross version of the U.S. flag. It seems as if one of the reasons for such a decision was because Kaepernick objected to the design’s associations with an era of slavery and its alleged adoption by some extremist groups.
However, while some extremist groups have tried to appropriate the Betsy Ross flag, it isn’t widely used by white nationalists or far-right groups as a rallying symbol, according to people who research American flags and those who track extremism.
But even if such radical groups were trying to claim the iconic 13-star flag as their own, to me that should provide even more reason for Nike to want to use it on a sneaker. Doing so would send a signal that the symbol isn’t owned by anyone, but it is a key part of our American heritage. By backing away, it seems as if Nike is simply allowing these radical groups to claim the flag as their own.
What if Nike wanted to put the Statue of Liberty on the back of one of its shoes, and some radical group decided to try and use Lady Liberty as its symbol? Should Nike just drop such an idea, or go ahead with production and use it as a way of saying that Lady Liberty belongs to the U.S., and not some radical fringe group?
Maybe I’m a little biased since the Betsy Ross flag is such a big part of the history of Philadelphia, and I’ve visited the Betsy Ross House a couple of times. It doesn’t seem you can get much more American than our first flag.
My fear is that if they weren’t using it before this controversy, radical groups may now feel emboldened to use the Betsy Ross flag as their own symbol.
And that seems to be the exact opposite of what Nike, and I’m sure Kaepernick, would want to happen.
P.S. For a great discussion of this issue from a marketing perspective, be sure to check the article at Forbes written by my Villanova colleague, Ray Taylor.