Sonny Vaccaro’s guts screamed at him to do whatever it takes to sign Michael Jordan.
Does this seem obvious to the executive of Nike? That was before Jordan set foot on NBA court, not during his storied run with the Chicago Bulls.
Vaccaro saw “greatness” in young Jordan, a once-in-a-generation talent that could change basketball, and Nike, forever.
And that’s exactly what he did.
“Air,” directed and co-starring Ben Affleck, captures this ’80s negotiation with humor, heart, and affection for American capitalism. Not all of the movie details happened in real life, but the story arc is true.
Nike saw a player with unlimited potential and acted on it.
Meritocracy mattered in Reagan’s day, and the best of the best made no apologies for breaking records.
That time is long gone.
Today, Nike’s most notable customers are no longer the best of the best, innovators in their fields, or towering giants on the grill or on the hard court.
To be part of the Nike team, you must win the Identity Politics Olympics.
Take Colin Kaepernick. The former NFL quarterback enjoyed a brief stint as an elite player before embracing a radical anti-cop sentiment that overshadowed his waning skills. The position accelerated his exit from the NFL and, to his credit, stayed true to his messaging.
He’s on the Nike roster today, despite his questionable NFL reunion attempts.
Teams have considered giving Kaepernick a second chance several times over the years. In 2019, Kaepernick and the NFL argued over the details of a possible tryout.
The two sides argued over whether Kaepernick would receive a list of NFL staffers who would be in attendance. They argued over whether the media would be allowed to watch and whether Kaepernick could bring his own camera crew to practice.
The former NFL player changed venues at the last minute and many scouts decided to go home rather than attend. Last year, his Raiders tryout was called a “disaster” by ex-NFL star Warren Sapp, and nothing major followed.
Being a Radical pays much better and involves fewer injuries.
Just do it? How about, “No, I’m fine. The check is already in the mail!
More recently, Kaepernick called her adoptive parents racist for comments they allegedly made about her hair during her teenage years.
It’s the anti-Jordan.
And then there’s Dylan Mulvaney.
The TikTok trans star has had a whirlwind media tour lately. She chatted with Drew Barrymore, who literally bowed down in her presence, and chatted with President Joe Biden.
For what? She is a trans woman and social media influencer. She, too, is on Nike’s payroll. The video of Mulvaney training in Nike sports bras has gone viral in recent days.
This prompted a backlash from some consumers and a rebuke from tennis legend Martina Navratilova.
“Guess Nike didn’t find a female athlete to sell sports bras…” Navratilova wrote with a shrug emoji.
“It’s a bra…it doesn’t matter who wears it. I don’t care what other people wear, and neither should you,” one Twitter user replied. “With so many other things going on in this world, a fucking bra shouldn’t matter.”
“Who wears it is one thing. Getting paid for it to the exclusion of women who actually need it is another…” Navratilova replied.
Mulvaney’s other sponsors include Bud Light, Ulta Beauty, Haus Labs, Crest, Instacart and CeraVe.
In a way, Nike reflects the wider culture through the years. In the 1980s, excellence reigned supreme. Today, the coin of the kingdom is victimhood and identity politics, something many high-profile companies embrace.
Few characters connect more to the latter than Kaepernick and Mulvaney.