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Nike’s Fourth of July sneaker controversy, explained

Colin Kaepernick reportedly asked Nike not to release a shoe with a Revolutionary War-era flag, enraging Ted Cruz and the governor of Arizona.

Nike reportedly pulled the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July after spokesperson Colin Kaepernick expressed concern about its imagery.

Nike has canceled plans to sell a limited-edition Air Max 1 in honor of the Fourth of July, the Wall Street Journal reports. Reportedly, former NFL athlete and Nike spokesperson Colin Kaepernick advised the company not to release it.

The sneaker was supposed to go on sale this week for $140, and Nike had already shipped it to retailers when it made the decision. Kaepernick took issue with the sneaker’s design, which featured 13 white stars in a circle, referencing a Revolutionary War-era version of the American flag (commonly known as the Betsy Ross flag). This early version of the flag, he argued, is pulled from the era of slavery and doesn’t warrant celebration.

The company did not give an explanation to retailers when asking that the shoes be returned, and some of them have made it out onto the secondhand market: As of this writing, a few dozen pairs are available on the resale bidding site StockX, currently going for around $2,000. In a statement sent to Vox on Tuesday afternoon, a Nike spokesperson elaborated: “Nike made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday. Nike is a company proud of its American heritage and our continuing engagement supporting thousands of American athletes[.]”

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted Tuesday morning that the state would no longer offer Nike any financial incentives to build a new manufacturing plant in the state (which was supposedly also set to be announced this week). In a nine-tweet thread, Ducey wrote, “Words cannot express my disappointment at this terrible decision. I am embarrassed for Nike.” The plant would reportedly have cost $184.5 million and employed 500 people, while the town of Goodyear had promised to waive about $1 million in permit fees as well as reimburse Nike $1 million for job creation.

“Nike is an iconic American brand and American company. This country, our system of government and free enterprise have allowed them to prosper and flourish,” Ducey continued. “Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation’s independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism. ... Arizona’s economy is doing just fine without Nike. We don’t need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation’s history.”

The statement Nike sent to Vox later in the day also referenced this manufacturing center, continuing, “We already employ 35,000 people in the US and remain committed to creating jobs in the US, including a significant investment in an additional manufacturing center which will create 500 new jobs.”

Also on Tuesday, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz chimed in on Twitter, writing, “I love America. I stand for the anthem, respect the flag & honor the men & women who fought to defend our Nation. I respect Free Speech & I’m exerting mine: until @Nike ends its contempt for those values, I WILL NO LONGER PURCHASE NIKE PRODUCTS.” He also asked people who agreed to retweet him, and use the hashtag #WalkAwayFromNike. Neither Ducey’s nor Cruz’s office immediately returned a request for comment.

The clunky hashtag choice could be Cruz attempting to be clever, or it could be to avoid confusion with the most recent Nike boycott, which was at the end of last year and also related to the company’s partnership with Kaepernick. (And unsuccessful.)

While that’s the basic timeline, the situation still doesn’t make a ton of sense unless you understand a couple of important American myths — Betsy Ross and her hand in the birth of the United States, Nike and Kaepernick’s hand in recreating the brand — as well as how they’ve pushed buttons in the recent past.

What’s wrong with the Betsy Ross flag? Also, why are these politicians being so defensive of it?

Though it’s unclear how widespread the explicit use of the Betsy Ross flag as a symbol of white supremacy is, the Washington Post tied it to the resurgence of the Patriot movement in 2016 — citing its use by many of the new-wave white nationalist militias that arose in the wake of Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

The Southern Poverty Law Center tracked a 300 percent increase in these types of groups in 2009, publishing a report that explained how these groups diverted from the Patriot movement’s past:

Almost a decade after largely disappearing from public view, right-wing militias, ideologically driven tax defiers and sovereign citizens are appearing in large numbers around the country.

A key difference this time is that the federal government — the entity that almost the entire radical right views as its primary enemy — is headed by a black man. That, coupled with high levels of non-white immigration and a decline in the percentage of whites overall in America, has helped to racialize the Patriot movement, which in the past was not primarily motivated by race hate.

In short: The connection to actual radical groups is there, if not obvious to most people. But ultimately, it shouldn’t really matter: Enough people saw the design and were offended by it, sensing something amiss in its celebration. Kaepernick wasn’t the only one; the sentiment appeared frequently on social media after the sneaker was announced. And it’s just a shoe — it makes more sense to get rid of it than to risk poking at historical wounds for no reason.

But Ducey and Cruz obviously disagree. “It shouldn’t take a controversy over a shoe for our kids to know who Betsy Ross is. A founding mother,” Ducey’s tweet thread ends. “Her story should be taught in all American schools. In the meantime, it’s worth googling her.”

That’s an interesting point, since Betsy Ross’s involvement in designing any version of the American flag has been debunked by historians. The Washington Post has called the Betsy Ross story “the most tenacious piece of fiction involving the flag,” pointing out that the popular myth of Ross creating the first 13-star flag at the behest of George Washington was fabricated by her grandson nearly 100 years after the event supposedly took place. Charles H. Weisgerber’s famous 1893 painting of Ross sitting in the sun with the flag in her lap was also a fictional scene.

In reality, Ross was a typical Philadelphia seamstress, who took in some work at some point sewing naval flags, and that’s it. But Harvard historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explains that her myth still holds power because it’s a classic story of the American woman patriot. And Ross’s tale served an important purpose in the creation of institutionalized American cultural identity more broadly:

The flag-veneration movement and the Betsy Ross legend grew together. By 1895, ten states had passed laws requiring public schools to display the flag on ordinary days as well as on holidays. In 1897, the New York City public schools ordered thousands of copies of Weisgerber’s painting.

In 1989, University of Buffalo historian Michael Fisch wrote that Betsy Ross was a symbol of America’s “civil religion,” serving essentially the same purpose the Virgin Mary does in Christianity. While Mary is “visited by a distant god, and commanded to be the vehicle, through their collaboration, of a divine creation,” Betsy is visited by Gen. Washington, who “calls on the humble seamstress,” prompting Betsy to “[bring] forth — from her lap! — the flag, the nation itself.”

So Betsy Ross is more a brand than an actually important historical figure. Which makes this, on some level, a social media dispute between two powerful American brands.

A billboard for Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign in New York City in September 2018.
Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Nike’s brand is beholden to the moral authority of Colin Kaepernick, who now has a weird amount of responsibility for a spokesperson

Colin Kaepernick’s protest of the national anthem effectively ended his professional football career, but it marked the beginning of something else — something pretty novel, and unique to this moment in time. Nike’s big Kaepernick ad campaign debuted last September, and though hashtags encouraging a boycott (or bonfires) of the supposedly anti-patriotic brand’s apparel trended briefly, it was inarguably a success. At the time, brand expert Chris Allieri told Vox, “Consumers are quick to outrage and quick to forget.”

“The #BurnYourNikes hashtag is currently heavily populated by those mocking the performance, pointing out that destroying Nike goods that are already bought and paid for doesn’t actually hurt Nike’s bottom line,” Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos wrote. “In some cases, burning Nikes might inadvertently be advertising for the company.” Abad-Santos also pointed out that the Kaepernick ad campaign was in “itself branding — and in reacting to it, its critics are ensuring that Nike is getting exactly what it paid for.” The company’s sales rose 4 percent in the last quarter of 2018, and its share price is still rising in 2019.

It seems likely that this latest controversy will play out the same way, though it’s notable that Kaepernick doesn’t even have to make a public statement or attach his face to it directly. He’s evolved to be the somewhat private conscience of an international, multibillion-dollar brand, which is increasingly interested in presenting itself as a defender of civil rights and an advocate for progressive politics (though it is still making big public missteps on that front). Nike may be tallying up the cost of all those unsold USA sneakers and cutting its losses, but there’s no doubt about what the conversation was when it made the decision to do so: It’ll be worth it, to further solidify the ethos of the brand.

Update: Updated July 2nd, 4:20 PM ET to include statement from Nike.

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