If Nike's poster star Colin Kaepernick ever finds himself in need of a break from critics of his anthem protest, the Twin Cities could be the spot.
The unemployed NFL quarterback bolted back into the smoking hot spotlight last week with a new Nike ad featuring his face overwritten with: "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."
The message was well-received outside the new $166 million University of Minnesota Athletes Village on Friday afternoon, where anyone resembling a student was likely to be sporting a backpack or at least one piece of clothing with the company's signature swoosh. The U's athletic department is in the fifth year of a six-year deal with Nike that provides about $2 million annually in apparel for athletes.
"I think our campus is open to all types of people and very much supports movements that are benefiting the overall good," said Haleigh Conner, a junior from Pinehurst, N.C., who endorsed Kaepernick's right to protest as well as the attention he gave the nation's racial divide. "People want to say that there is not one, but there is."
In October 2016, Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racism. Since that season ended, he has been out of work and has filed a federal lawsuit against the NFL, claiming owners colluded to keep him sidelined because of his protest.
Nike's Kaepernick ad has ignited intense debate about the Oregon-based athletic apparel company and the quarterback. Kaepernick got plenty of high-profile support from LeBron James and Tiger Woods, but there were others who made funeral pyres of their Nike gear and shared those images on social media.
President Donald Trump, who has been sharply critical of NFL players who have protested during the national anthem, tweeted his dislike for the campaign, saying, "Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder if they had any idea that it would be this way?"
However, digital-commerce researcher Edison Trends said Nike sales had actually increased 31 percent through Tuesday compared with 2017.
Despite the Nike gear on the Minneapolis campus, the athletic department declined to comment or make athletes available to talk on the subject. Other students were happy to chat and embraced Kapernick's message, as did a North Side nonprofit that received a $25,000 grant from the quarterback's personal foundation almost two years ago.
Mackenna Holmes, a U sophomore from Little Falls and the daughter of two U.S. Navy veterans, backs Nike, Kaepernick and the U. "He's showing disrespect to nothing," she said. In her view, a more disrespectful act is burning Nike gear, something that could be donated to a veteran.
Simon Dreisbach, a sophomore from St. Paul, described himself as "fully on board" with a continued relationship with Nike and Kaepernick's message in the ad. "It's cool that we support someone who's willing to do what he did," he said. "He saw an injustice and he knew that he had the capability to do something about it so he did."
Junior Brendan Hamilton from Cottage Grove said he cheers Kaepernick's message, but not Nike. He pointed at Nike's practice of outsourcing labor to pay "dirt wages" in foreign countries.
The Minnesota State High School League also gets a small amount of aid from Nike in the form of soccer balls, a limited number of polo shirts and jackets for the state tournament, spokesman John Millea said. The MSHSL declined to comment on the controversy.
Kaepernick's foundation gave $25,000 in 2016 to the north Minneapolis nonprofit Appetite for Change, which works to bring healthier food to an urban area where residents tend to be poorer and have less access to organics and fresh produce.
Office administrator Shaunté Douglas said the nonprofit is "most definitely" behind Kaepernick. "He's using his power as leverage through capitalism," she said, adding that the nonprofit's aim of social change matches Kaepernick's.
The Nike brand is a longtime "staple among people of color," she said, and she expects that to continue.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747