Most companies live with inconsistencies, tensions and internal contradictions – it’s the nature of corporate life. So why expect more from Nike?
Shaun Whatling
Shaun Whatling is the CEO of Redmandarin, which provides strategic, analytic and planning services. Its Partners have assisted 15 TOP and domestic Partners, including five Partners of Tokyo 2020.
Nike: Just do it?
3rd April 2019, 12:19

The film ‘How to murder your wife’ was released in 1965. 

It tells the story of cartoonist Stanley Ford, played by Jack Lemmon, who stands wrongly accused of murdering his wife. Lemmon’s character uses the defence of justifiable homicide. 

The pivotal scene takes place in the courtroom. Ford conducts his own defence, and with his best friend Harold in the witness chair, offers him the chance to dissolve his own marriage - and his wife Edna - at the push of an imaginary button.

Ford batters down Harold’s formulaic defences by offering him the prospect of regaining his freedom, his sexual freedom in particular, which slowly, hypnotically, draws Harold to the button. He stops one final time to check that no one will ever know - and presses. The 12 members of the all-male jury acquit Ford. After all, who wouldn’t want to murder his wife?

Despite scoring 69 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, the film review site, it’s of course a film that could never be made now. Hilarious - but uncomfortable. A different time. Different sensibilities. 

And I find myself in a similarly uncomfortable position now with Cristiano Ronaldo.

As you’ll have heard, Ronaldo is facing an accusation of rape, an accusation under investigation by the Las Vegas police force. The account has been well documented, first and foremost by German newspaper Der Spiegel, and then by other major news sources.

Of course, Ronaldo is innocent until proven guilty. But Ronaldo’s current defence looks even flimsier than Stanley Ford’s, on both counts. Firstly, that the sex was consensual. Read Der Spiegel and draw your own conclusion. Secondly, that his accuser signed a settlement preventing her from going public.


So I have to ask myself: what exactly does Nike believe in - and stand for?  

 

Once again, I’m split. A small part of me wants the ideal universe that Ronaldo represents to remain intact. A far bigger part of me is horrified at the inevitable conclusion of Der Spiegel’s reporting, informed by documents uploaded to the whistleblower site Football Leaks.

Nike, which has a contract worth a reported $1 billion with Ronaldo, has said it’s “deeply concerned.”

Any holding statement is going to sound first and foremost like the language of a large business whose main priority is to avoid business disruption. In USA in particular, sponsors have become increasingly quick to distance themselves from ambassadorial misdemeanours. Nike, on the other hand, generally only acts when the burning platform is actually melting its sneakers. Because for Nike, in deep and often longstanding commercial relationships with the likes of Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Ronaldo, the implications are scary: withdraw marketing; cease production; withdraw product; manage fallout. 

This is not an easy path to tread, as we witnessed in 2009: with its golf business heavily dependent on the Woods brand, Nike faced it out and stuck by its man. But sexual addiction is one thing, alleged rape is another.

Just six months ago, Nike was making headlines with the 30th anniversary of its famous ‘Just do it’ slogan. To many people’s delight, it made Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who was one of the leaders of the kneeling protest against racial injustice, the face of the campaign. Nike used Kaepernick to evolve the application of its famous mantra, to overlay it with altogether deeper significance. A black-and-white photo of himself, tweeted by Kaepernick, complete with Nike logo and ‘Just do it’ juxtaposed with the quote: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

So I have to ask myself: what exactly does Nike believe in - and stand for?


It’s hard for brands to maintain consistency across their visual identity, let alone the myriad facets of organisational life  

 

Let’s be clear, it’s easy to take pops at businesses for moral inconsistency: as Mark Ritson pointed out last week, Starbucks’ ambition ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit’ is somewhat at odds with tax evasion. It’s hard for brands to maintain consistency across their visual identity, let alone the myriad facets of organisational life. Most companies live with inconsistencies, tensions and internal contradictions – it’s the nature of corporate life. So why expect more from Nike?

Well, there are two reasons. Firstly, because the massive inconsistency emanates from the same department. The heroic championing of self-sacrifice and principles which go way beyond winning and losing on the field of play; against a holding statement which is, at best, ambiguous. These are carefully chosen communications from the same source. But given the chasm between the value systems they represent, the only consistency is one of expedience.

And secondly, because - please: you cannot champion women’s sport and at the same time show blatant disregard for such a fundamental woman’s right. Innocent until proven guilty is a clear principle of law; but in this context, it’s also a cop-out.

It’s the Kaepernick campaign that highlights the issue. Does Nike’s Kaepernick campaign suggest a stronger commitment by Nike to issues of racial equality than of sexual violence? Does Nike believe its Foundation’s generous investment in The Girl Effect and women’s sport justify it placing its commercial interests above the principle of sexual consent? Does Nike believe (allegations of) rape and serial adultery are simply acceptable from great athletes – because they live by different rules? Or are we back in ‘How to murder your wife’ territory? Does Nike believe an alleged rape is a little slip that we can live with now and again?

And where does Serena Williams stand on this?

Sportcal