- - Thursday, July 4, 2019

The executive suites of corporate America have been the source of a lot of bonehead mistakes. Some of those mistakes are famous (perhaps infamous to stockholders): New Coke, the AOL-Time Warner merger, the Blockbuster Video (remember them?) decision to turn down a profitable acquisition offer from Netflix. But Nike’s capitulation to the new forces of political correctness sets a new standard of industrial-strength dumb.

The Oregon-based manufacturer of sporting goods seems to have adopted contempt for America as a marketing strategy. Nike withdrew its Air Max 1 USA shoe with the Revolutionary-era American flag, the so-called “Betsy Ross flag” with 13 white stars in a circle, imprinted on the heel of a sneaker, after Colin Kaepernick, a one-time NFL quarterback, found the flag offensive because it dates from a time when slavery was common practice in the colonies, and not just in the South.

The Nike shoe was produced in a limited edition, intended for the Fourth of July selling season. Mr. Kaepernick, who famously “took a knee” during the singing of the national anthem before games to avoid paying honor to America, has been a paid endorser of Nike products. When he spoke, Nike listened. Mr. Kaepernick and his like-minded are offended by the sight of the flag they say is connected to slavery because it was created when slavery was practiced in the colonies. Others argue that white nationalist groups have flown the Betsy Ross flag at their rallies, and thus are contaminated.

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The origins of the Betsy Ross flag are clouded. Elizabeth Griscomb Ross was a flag-maker for the Pennsylvania Navy when George Washington, commander in chief of the Continental Army, called on her in Philadelphia in 1776 to make a suitable flag for the army. Some historians believe her contribution to the final design of the flag was to persuade Washington to adopt a five-pointed star instead of the six-pointed star in the designs of other flag-makers floating about in Philadelphia. Can’t a woman get a little respect?

There had never been a political controversy over the flag until Mr. Kaepernick, who is not widely regarded as a distinguished historian of the colonial era, raised the issue when Nike released the new shoes. The backlash to Nike’s decision was swift and predictable. Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona, a Republican, said Arizona would rescind millions of dollars of state subsidies to build a Nike manufacturing plant in Arizona. U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, Missouri Republican, tweeted agreement. “Nike thinks American flag is symbol of oppression? What planet are you on? Nike gladly allows Chinese Communist Party to tell it what products to sell while building its business around sweatshop labor. Nike is anti-American, pure & simple.”

The American flag, in all of its historical forms, including the Betsy Ross flag, was once eagerly claimed by partisans of all stripes. Democrats and Republicans alike festooned their rallies with flags and Barack Obama was inaugurated with the Betsy Ross flag prominently displayed at his second inauguration. But some Democrats, often nervous about displays of patriotism, spoke up for Mr. Kaepernick. Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, a Democrat, says Nike “made the right decision.” Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio and one of the multitude of Democrats running for president, said he was “glad to see [Nike pull the shoe]. And my hope is that they didn’t just do it to do it. They understand the significance there. And look, there are a lot of things in our history that are still very painful.” He observes that “the Confederate Flag still flies in some places, and is used as a symbol.” Professor Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University and a frequent television talking head, even likens the Betsy Ross flag to the Nazi swastika flag.

Others, of a kinder, gentler persuasion, take a more philosophical view. “I’m not sure brother Kaepernick even totally understands who Betsy Ross is,” says Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s unfortunate that we are fighting over sneakers when we should be celebrating living in the best country in the world.” She had a bit of personal advice for the quarterback with a damp knee. “If you take a knee,” she says, “do a prayer in the process. You educate your public, and you examine your own soul.”

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