Nike celebrated Colin Kaepernick as a social-justice folk hero with its “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” ad campaign, but apparently the slogan doesn’t apply to the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
After positioning itself as an unabashed champion of Mr. Kaepernick’s free-speech rights, Nike has been conspicuously silent on the uproar roiling the NBA, saying nothing about China’s decision to punish the Houston Rockets after general manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the protesters.
In fact, Nike stores in China quietly pulled their Houston Rockets merchandise off the shelves last week, according to Reuters, an indication that the sports apparel giant has already made the decision to protect its bottom line rather than the consistency of its “speak truth to power” message.
The difference in Nike’s approach has not gone unnoticed. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, tweeted he was “still waiting for @Nike & their stable of ‘woke’ social-justice warrior/athletes to speak out.”
Nike’s low profile also comes in stark contrast to its decision in July to yank shoes featuring the Betsy Ross flag after Mr. Kaepernick reportedly complained that the 13-star image was offensive.
With a few exceptions, however, most of the blowback has been directed at the NBA and, more recently, Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, who unleashed a social-media outcry by telling reporters Monday that Morey “wasn’t educated on the situation.”
Like other companies heavily invested in China, “Nike is playing the long game,” said Dan Gainor, vice president of business and culture at the conservative Media Research Center.
“They know Americans are distracted by a bazillion things, and they’re assuming they can weather the storm,” Mr. Gainor said. “That’s certainly what the NBA is doing. Would it surprise me to know that Nike is talking to the NBA and say, how can we weather this together? Not at all.”
As far as Fox Sports host Jason Whitlock is concerned, Nike is calling the shots, saying that, “The NBA answers to Nike. Basketball exists to sell shoes.”
“Nike is the real bully in the ring here. They are influencing American culture. They are addicted to the market in China,” said Mr. Whitlock on Fox’s “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” “They’ve got 1.4 billion people over there that Nike needs to sell shoes to.”
Indeed, Nike’s stock price rose by 1.86% over the last five days as analysts predicted that the $37 billion company would sail through the storm with its business relationship with China firmly intact.
“We think it’s much ado about nothing,” Susquehanna equity analyst Sam Poster told Yahoo Finance on Tuesday. “Nike is a huge brand. It’s been in China for 30 years. Every check we’ve done over the years has been that the Chinese consumer thinks of Nike as a global brand and doesn’t think of it as a U.S. brand.”
Whether the same can be said of U.S. consumers is another issue. Both the right and left have slammed the NBA for its less-than-courageous to the crackdown, which saw state-controlled Chinese television and sponsors launch a Houston Rockets boycott.
Meanwhile, about 200 protesters in Hong Kong burned and trampled James jerseys Tuesday while chanting a message that “wasn’t printable,” the AP reported.
The Lakers star had also shown support for Mr. Kaepernick, posting the Nike ad on Instagram, after the former NFL quarterback refused to stand for the national anthem. Both men have contracts with Nike.
“I think it’s important to stick up for what you believe in,” James told reporters in February. “I stand with Kap. I kneel with Kap.”
Sen. Rick Scott, Florida Republican, tweeted Tuesday that it was “sad to see him joining the chorus kowtowing to Communist China and putting profits over human rights for #HongKong,” while Sen. Josh Hawley called James’s comment on Morey “garbage.”
“Having just been in Hong Kong—on the streets & with the protestors—this kind of garbage is hard to take,” tweeted the Missouri Republican. “LeBron, are YOU educated on ‘the situation’? Why don’t you go to Hong Kong? Why don’t you meet the people there risking their lives for their most basic liberties.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee predicted the NBA would relocate to China “so Nike can make even MORE money with the Commies. They can spew any anti-American stuff they want as long as they don’t criticize China.”
The episode has focused attention on the pro-democracy protests as well as human-rights abuses in China, where an estimated 1.5 million Uighur Muslims have undergone detention and reeducation for “extremist thoughts” since 2016 in Xinjiang.
James later tweeted that the NBA and his team “just went through a difficult week,” which left sportscaster and former NBA player Len Elmore “a bit flabbergasted.”
“I’m not sure it’s going to hurt his brand domestically, but the bottom line is, going forward, this is going to make people very skeptical when guys speak out for social justice, looking at placing a dollar sign on it,” Mr. Elmore said on Fox Business.
U.S. companies in China must walk a fine line to avoid offending the communist government, and in Nike’s case, billions are at stake. Nike footwear sales alone in 2018 were $4.26 billion in China, which has an estimated 300 million recreational basketball players.
Last month, Nike won a Creative Arts Emmy for its Kaepernick ad, released to coincide with the opening of the 2018 NFL regular season. Despite some pushback from Kaepernick critics, the Oregon-based company saw sales rise last year by 36%.
Mr. Kaepernick has become something of a full-time social-justice advocate since the 2016 season — he settled a grievance with team owners alleging they colluded to keep him out of the NFL — but so far he has not commented publicly on Mr. Morey’s tweet.
“Where’s Colin Kaepernick?” asked Mr. Gainor. “You’re the king of protests. You wear socks that show cops as pigs. Meanwhile, you have an autocratic nation that is mistreating millions, and is really one of the worst nations on earth, and where are you on your social critique?”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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