Talking politics generally ranks somewhere between microwaving fish and taking off your shoes on the list of behaviors to avoid in a place of business — unless you’re Nike, in which case politics has become your business.

The athletic clothing company nixed the debut of a patriotic sneaker this week when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick called an audible after seeing designs for the shoe online, according a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Colin Kaepernick attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "Camp: Notes on Fashion" exhibition on Monday, May 6, 2019, in New York.
Colin Kaepernick attends The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating the opening of the "Camp: Notes on Fashion" exhibition on Monday, May 6, 2019, in New York. | Charles Sykes

What was the objectionable symbol? An American flag — the so-called “Betsy Ross” flag, to be precise.

Kaepernick, who has an endorsement deal with the company, says he and others see the 18th-century banner as a symbol for white nationalism and a representation of a country that once embraced slavery and oppression.

In a statement, Nike said the decision to pull the sneaker was “based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.” Too late. The controversy exploded on social media and has likely distracted more Americans than if the shoes had been posted for sale as originally planned.

The backlash begs the question: Why would Nike, who knows Kaepernick led protests against the national anthem and who capitalized on his grievances in a marketing campaign last year, think the flag design would fly by unnoticed?

Probably because it’s mostly uncontroversial. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the “Betsy Ross” flag is not found in the catalog of more than 150 hate symbols. The Hate Symbols Database includes the Confederate flag, the swastika, burning crosses and a host of hand signs.

Being socially aware is undoubtedly a positive trait for American companies, but the bottom line for Nike’s decision was, well, its bottom line: It’s good business. The company saw sales and stock increases last year after featuring Kaepernick in a new ad campaign, and it took a similar gamble this week, hoping its young, largely male clientele would respond favorably to its support for the former quarterback. Yet somehow, profiting off racial injustice seems antithetical to the aims of Kaepernick and his fellow protestors.

And another question: How much politics are consumers willing to squeeze into their shopping carts?

How much politics are consumers willing to squeeze into their shopping carts?

Starbucks, Patagonia and even Burger King have waded into political waters to mixed reactions. After Gillette unveiled a pre-Super Bowl commercial targeting toxic masculinity earlier this year, 1-star reviews popped up on products sold through Amazon, consisting of barbs such as, “I am switching to a double edge safety razor. It has a simple design that won't have a toxic reaction to male hormones.”

In terms of dollars, it seems Nike has found a winning strategy, but it’s unclear the majority of the country likes the tactic. At an International Trademark Association meeting in May, the vice president of brand stewardship for Dunkin’ Donuts’ parent company told the room, “We are not Starbucks. We aren't political. We don't want to engage you in political conversation, we want to get you in and out of our store in seconds. … We don't want people burning their Munchkin boxes.”

How refreshing. In this election cycle, Americans can turn in any direction to get an earful of political blabber without businesses joining the throng. Sometimes, shoppers just want to browse and buy in peace.