Nike is shelving a plan to sell sneakers emblazoned with images of an early version of the American flag after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick complained to the company, calling the design offensive.
Kaepernick spoke to Nike officials this week to protest their decision to sell the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July, an Americana-themed sneaker to celebrate the holiday. He says that the “Betsy Ross” flag design—which sports 13 stars in a circle and appears on the heel of the new shoe—is associated with racism and slavery. The NAACP has previously denounced the flag, including in 2016, when a Michigan chapter associated it with militia groups promoting white supremacy. That statement came after students at a local high school flew the Betsy Ross flag next to a Donald Trump flag at a football game.
In response, Nike, having already shipped the sneakers to stores, requested that retailers return the shoe, but did not provide an explanation to sellers. After the recall, prices surged to $2,500 for a pair on resale sites like StockX. That site later stopped sales of the shoes, too, with CEO Scott Cutler explaining that the design “doesn’t align with our value system.”
In his message to Nike, Kaepernick reportedly complained about the flag because it flew during an era in which slavery was in practice. Others have rebuked the Ross flag specifically because of its connections to anti-black extremist groups, including a white supremacist group called III% and the Ku Klux Klan. III% has been photographed posing with the Revolutionary War–era flag, while the KKK passed out miniature Betsy Ross flags at a rally and used images of it in a letter.
Kaepernick played for the San Francisco 49ers from 2011 to 2016. Throughout what would become, for now, his last season in the NFL, the QB became the public face of an activism campaign in which he first sat and then kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality against black Americans. The #TakeAKnee campaign eventually spread throughout the league, its target expanding to other realms of racial injustice, and created a national firestorm.
Following the 2016–17 season, during which President Donald Trump opined on Twitter that owners “should fire” players that “disrespect” the country by refusing to stand for the national anthem, Kaepernick abandoned his contract with the 49ers and became a free agent. Lacking offers from any other teams to sign for the next season, Kaepernick then filed a grievance suit against the NFL and its owners for colluding to keep him out of the league. NFL safety Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate who was the first player to join in his protest, later joined a similar grievance suit against the NFL. Both players settled at the start of this year.
Kaepernick’s objection to Nike’s design comes after the company recruited him in 2018 to be the face of its Just Do It campaign, a deal that was reportedly “worth millions.”
The announcement that Nike is pulling the flag-embroidered shoes prompted outrage from some conservative lawmakers. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey tweeted on Monday that in response to the controversy, he would withdraw the tax incentives that had been offered to Nike to start a plant in the state.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz also wrote an angry string of tweets, writing that “Nike only wants to sell shoes to people who hate the American flag.”
Others shared their support for Kaepernick’s decision.
The 13-starred flag design on the shoe is often said to have originated after George Washington commissioned it from Betsy Ross in the mid-1770s, although the history is disputed. Some scholars believe Ross was just one of a number of seamstresses who worked on the flag and wasn’t personally responsible for the design.
Kaepernick has not yet commented publicly on the flag or on Nike’s decision.