In a decision that will thrust Nike into the spotlight of corporations walking a tightrope between product and historic symbolism, the athletic giant has pulled an American flag-themed shoe from circulation after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick expressed concern to the company about selling apparel he says features a slave-era emblem.
According to a source who spoke with Yahoo Sports, Nike began a movement to pull the shoe from stores nearly two weeks ago after Kaepernick and others raised concern that the “Betsy Ross Flag” printed on the heel of the company’s 4th of July-themed Air Max 1 was not only racially insensitive, but had also been adopted by some groups such as the Patriot Movement and Identity Evropa (pronounced “Europa”) allegedly as a symbol of white nationalism.
Nike spokesman Mark Rhodes released a statement Monday declaring: “Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured an old version of the American flag.”
A source who went into more detail about the decision told Yahoo Sports that a significant part of the shoe’s removal from circulation stemmed from complaints from Kaepernick and others about the symbolism of the Ross flag, which rose to prominence in the 1790s. Further backlash began to build on a smattering of social media platforms last week, while Nike began quietly recalling the shoes from stores as debates over the sensitivity of the product bubbled up on sneaker-centric accounts.
The “Betsy Ross Flag” features 13 stars in a circle representing the United States’ original 13 colonies. As concern over white nationalism has become a spotlight issue in recent years, the Ross flag has for some risen as a symbol of controversy as it’s reportedly been adopted by some movements.
One of the most nationally-publicized moments spotlighting the alleged symbolism occurred in Michigan in 2016, when students from largely-white Forest Hills Central High brought the Ross flag and a Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” banner to a high school football game against Grand Rapids Ottawa Hills — a school which has a minority enrollment over 90 percent.
Following a complaint about the flag and banner, Forest Hills Public Schools Superintendent Daniel Behm apologized for the incident in a published letter. In it, he said the Forest Hill Central students had “[waved] a historical version of our flag, that to some symbolizes exclusion and hate” and “injects hostility and confusion to an event where no one intended to do so.”
The president of the Greater Grand Rapids Branch of the NAACP Cle Jackson later blasted the students’ use of the Ross flag in comments to Michigan Capitol Confidential, calling it a symbol that had been adopted by “[t]he so-called ‘Patriot Movement’ and other militia groups who are responding to America’s increasing diversity with opposition and racial supremacy.”
Those were feelings Kaepernick passed on when he shared his concerns with Nike about the Ross flag being a slavery-era symbol, a source told Yahoo Sports. Not long after, the company began moving to recall the shoes, which had already been shipped to stores throughout the country. It’s unclear how many of the shoes — if any — made it into public hands. It’s also not clear what Nike intends to do with the apparel now that it has been recalled.