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The poet Dante Alighieri will be smiling in his grave because of the compelling and unprecedented moral stand Nike recently took, when it decided to make former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick the face of a new campaign to mark the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan.

Because Dante warned, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

For Dante, moral fortitude cannot be abandoned. The issue is even more serious when the norms and values of a free and democratic society are being seriously challenged, as is the case with Kaepernick when he started kneeling during the national anthem before NFL games to protest police brutality. His decision to protest the anthem to draw attention to issues of racial injustice has sparked a lot of controversy. But in my view, his simple and quiet kneeling was nothing short of a moral imperative needed in these challenging times.

In outstanding fashion, Nike has answered Dante’s call to demonstrate the courage of their moral conviction. Kaepernick is not just another win for Nike. This is about breaking ground in moral leadership and showing that the robust health of a thriving company and its intense and committed moral engagement are not mutually exclusive.  

That is why we need to move beyond the Kaepernick national anthem controversy. We should now focus our energy to encourage other companies to take moral positions on issues of social justice and inequality, because the anthem protest is just one of many compounding problems regarding race in America.

The lesson here is for companies to have courage in the face of controversy. They should not be afraid of becoming powerful agents in the fight against inequality.

Nike has shown that taking a stand for justice and equality is not a losing proposition. The hope is that a sense of collective moral leadership on the part of corporations will always appeal to the conscience of their customers across lines of race and gender.

The Nike decision should force a debate in corporate boardrooms with the following:

Should companies be responsive to the call of conscience, or do they just have a responsibility to their shareholders?

Should companies be mindful of the public trust, or should they be apathetic to concerns of injustice that burden everyday people?

The truth is Nike could have chosen not to go with Kaepernick for its anniversary and wouldn’t lose a dime for it. But they chose not to sit on the fence. They decided to be on the right side of history on this controversial issue. In doing so, they rejected the myth that the profit motive is antithetical to social responsibility. Because the integrity of making money is consistent with caring about people.

In as much as the Nike/Kaepernick deal ignited a lot of excitement on social media, I wasn’t surprised. I believe that there are companies whose business priorities are firmly connected to the public good. There are others who strive to maintain their stance for justice.

That is why in these trying times the leadership provided by corporations must envision the very best in the American experience and strive to maintain high ideals.

Nike has seized the day when others have remained indifferent to the issues that matter most, and now occupies an important place in the discussion around sports and race.

Let’s not forget that as individuals and as a nation we have a moral obligation to live out the values that have sustained and strengthened this democracy. That is what Kaepernick sought to do and Nike rightfully responded to his challenge.

bankole@bankolethompson.com

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

Catch “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” which is broadcast at noon weekdays on Superstation 910AM.

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