Nike's sneaker debacle highlights the controversial history of the Betsy Ross flag
Nike is pulling its Fourth of July edition Air Max 1, which was going to feature the Betsy Ross flag. The decision was reportedly made after Colin Kaepernick, Nike's top brand ambassador, expressed concerns that flag was too closely associated with slavery, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was a decision that Nike did not attribute to Kaepernick.
A Nike spokesperson told the Journal that they decided “not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured the old version of the American flag.” The company reported shipped the sneakers out to retailers before asking for the shoe to be shipped back.
But according to people involved in the decision-making process, it was heavily influenced by Kaepernick, who declined to comment on the story. The flag features 13 stars and stripes and is historically known as being sewn by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross for George Washington – though the actual origins of the flag is disputed by historians. There's actually no evidence she had anything to do with the creation of the flag.
In recent years, the old flag has been associated with white supremacist groups, particularly the Klu Klux Klan. According to CNN, the KKK handed out fliers with the Betsy Ross flag along with Snickers bars to children during the summer of 2016. And in 2013, it was reported that Georgia KKK meetings were required to fly either the Betsy Ross flag or the Confederate flags at meetings.
Nike's decision to pull the shoe was widely condemned by conservatives on social media. "It's a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag," Senator Ted Cruz tweeted.
"I am a veteran and I have a beautiful Betsy Ross flag flying that recently replaced its predecessor-another Betsy Ross flag," one Twitter user wrote. "If that offends Colin Kaepernick, that’s tough. I am not a right wing voter but let’s get real. This is too much."
In Arizona, Nike's decision resulted in consequences more severe than social media backlash. Governor Doug Ducey announced that he would be pulling a $1 million grant to build a Nike factory in the state. He condemned Nike's lack of "patriotism," in a nine-tweet thread.
But despite the conservative criticism, plenty of other people supported Nike's decision, citing other times the Ross flag has been used in association with racist actions dating well before the past few years.
A spokesperson from the Southern Poverty Law Center, Bob Hopkinson, told the Today Show that the symbol has been frequently used by a number of hate groups in the United States. “Historically, these symbols have been used by white supremacists, both to hearken back to a time when black people were enslaved, while also painting themselves as the inheritors of the ‘true’ American tradition,” Hopkinson said.
This is not the first time that the Nike has been the center of cultural conflict. When the company announced that they signed Colin Kaepernick as the company's chief brand ambassador in a multimillion dollar contract, conservatives across the country pledged to burn their sneakers in protest. Kaepernick became a leading figure in protests against police brutality and the treatment of Black Americans in 2016, when he began kneeling during the national anthem at NFL games.
In the case of the Betsy Ross sneakers, Nike apparently wasn't able to pull all of the shoes — some of them appeared on StockX.com, and were selling for at least $2,500 on the site.