Nike's deal with Colin Kaepernick was a hit from the start. It's come to the point that you can't ignore politics, so maybe you shouldn't. Sure, there were those people setting fire to a pair of shoes online, but who cares? Sales were significantly up.

But then Nike showed that what seemed to be a principled decision was perhaps a bit more window dressing than foundation. The company contributed heavily to Republican candidates who were more likely to support the shoe burners than Democrats did. And now we have the Betsy Ross flag controversy that could have been a success for Nike, Kaepernick, and the whole reason the quarterback initially took a knee during the national anthem.

As was mentioned in the news, Nike was supposed to come out with a sneaker that had a reproduction on the heel of the original Betsy Ross national flag, which looked similar to the current U.S. one, only with a circle of 13 stars to represent the original colonies.

Put aside for a moment the foolishness of all the people who complain about the lack of respect for the flag who are otherwise willing to have it stuck on their clothing, towels, or even, as I saw the other day, a covering a barber draped over a customer before performing a haircut.

Nike was ready to start selling the sneaker when, as the story goes, Kaepernick objected to the design because white supremacists have taken up the Betsy Ross flag as a symbol. Also, that was the flag of the nation at a time when slavery was legal in many of the states.

The company folded and pulled the line, which infuriated many on the right. From one view, that was the smart brand thing to do.

(Although you might wonder how it could have gotten so far that they had to kill off the sneaker rather than ask Kaepernick's opinion early on and drop the idea before it cost money. Unless, the more cynical might wonder, whether it provided a way for Nike to "do the right thing" and was planned all along. A bit too byzantine for my liking, although not out of the realm of possibility.)

But was this the smartest approach? One of the points that have come up with discussions about this particular flag is that it isn't necessarily widely seen as a hate group symbol. That, maybe, people shouldn't roll over for white supremacists and automatically let them have whatever they want.

Nike and Kaepernick could have worked to take back that symbol, recognizing that it represented the nation when slavery was rampant, and turn it around for a better purpose. Run a campaign reclaiming the promise of freedom and unity. Spotlighting people of color from revolutionary days going forward. In many cases, introducing great and heroic people to a modern audience, each time draping that person in the Betsy Ross Flag.

They could have tried to redeem the flag. Take it back and both recognize the injuries and the possibilities. Why let someone else decide who gets to use what symbols?

This is particularly crazy because Kaepernick has personal credibility and Nike has access to plenty of people who know how to craft a winning message. They could have done broader good and helped the company at the same time.

But you need the right mentality. Why play defense all the time when you also should have an offensive game? This is true throughout life. If you're an entrepreneur, remember that sometimes you get aggressive and look to actively win. Don't let others define the entire game. Compete to create the definitions because they you can influence and even control all the conversations.

Published on: Jul 7, 2019
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