AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Nike is once again in the center of a heated political debate. This time, it's about sneakers that Nike has decided not to sell. The company says it's withdrawing its Fourth of July Air Max 1 sneaker. The red and white shoes feature a colonial version of the American flag on the back of the heel, 13 stars for the original colonies. Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick reportedly was the one who asked Nike to reconsider the design, arguing that it celebrates the time when slavery was both legal and common.
NPR's Alina Selyukh joins us now with more on this controversy. And Alina, what more have we learned about why Nike pulled this shoe?
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: So this week, the company was slated to release this shoe. As you were saying, it is designed for the Fourth of July, Independence Day. And it has this historic flag, known as the Betsy Ross flag. And the design had been making rounds on sneakerhead sites and Instagram, where comments were starting to pop up - sort of, why is Nike basically promoting an era of slavery? This is a flag that is most often found in history books and museums, but there have also been a few instances when it was used by extremist groups to promote white nationalism.
So fast forward to now. The Wall Street Journal reports that Nike got a warning from one of its most high-profile brand ambassadors, football star and activist Colin Kaepernick, who asked to reconsider the design, saying it was offensive to him and people who support him. And Nike decided to pull the shoe right before it went on sale. I reached out to Nike. The company says it was worried that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the patriotic holiday.
CORNISH: It still is unusual for a company of this size to make this kind of decision based on the word of one person. Can you talk about how this happened?
SELYUKH: Right. So - well, neither Nike nor Kaepernick have commented publicly on the details of this back and forth on the situation. But we know that Nike made a huge bet on Kaepernick, embracing him, alongside with his strong views and activism on racial injustice. Remember, he was the football player who took a knee during the national anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality against unarmed black men. And Nike took a lot of heat - literally people burning Nike sneakers in protest after Kaepernick was featured in a big ad campaign last year about overcoming adversity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
COLIN KAEPERNICK: Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.
SELYUKH: I spoke with Americus Reed II. He's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. He studies this idea that stuff we buy actually often has a lot to do about how we think about ourselves and our identity. And he says Nike has been very savvy about that. It has bet on Kaepernick because of his activism on racial injustice. Reed actually thinks Nike bet on Kaepernick to be this generation's Muhammad Ali.
AMERICUS REED II: Now it's sort of incumbent upon you as Nike to portray a consistency of those values that really drove your decision to back Colin Kaepernick in the first place.
SELYUKH: So he's saying Nike now had to make sure it does not come out looking hypocritical. And it rushed to act before the reaction started coming in and the situation got out of its control.
CORNISH: Of course, in a way, that still happened, right? I mean...
CORNISH: ...The response has been controversial.
SELYUKH: And quite polarizing, as you can imagine. I haven't seen any shoes being burned quite yet, perhaps because they are pulled from the shelves. But you did get Republican lawmakers, like Senator Ted Cruz and others, accusing Nike of hating the American flag, of politicizing the revolutionary period overall. Then you've got supporters saying Nike's standing for what's right and that it's important to acknowledge historical injustices.
The biggest move came from Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. He tweeted that his state will now withdraw financial incentives offered to Nike for opening a factory in Goodyear, Ariz. He wrote a series of tweets, saying that his state would not, quote, "suck up to companies that consciously denigrate this - the nation's history." The plant in Arizona is slated to employ about 500 people. It would only be Nike's third manufacturing facility in the U.S., and Nike's latest statements still suggest that they are committed to this factory.
Now, as far as the shoe itself is concerned, the Fourth of July design of Air Max 1 has been yanked from the stores, but a few are out there on the Internet being sold for $2,500 a pop.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thanks for your reporting.
SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.