Nike Inc. NKE -3.16% will feature Colin Kaepernick, the National Football League quarterback who led national-anthem protests, in a new advertising campaign, a move that joins one of the NFL’s biggest business partners with a controversial star who is engaged in a high-profile legal battle with the league.
The news sparked some criticism on social media and weighed on shares of Nike. The stock fell 2.9% Tuesday to $79.78 and was the worst-performing member of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For the year, shares remain 28% higher.
Mr. Kaepernick, the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, revealed his role in the campaign in a tweet on Monday that was subsequently retweeted by Nike’s corporate Twitter account. A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Kaepernick will be part of a renewed Nike “Just Do It” campaign, and his face will be featured in ads and on billboards.
“Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything. #JustDoIt,” Mr. Kaepernick wrote. The tweet included a black-and-white picture of his face with the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”
A Nike spokeswoman wrote in an email that Mr. Kaepernick is “among the athletes” being featured in the “Just Do It” campaign, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2018.
“This campaign is a compilation of the most inspirational athletes around sport—athletes who have chased crazy dreams, no matter the obstacle or outcome,” she added.
Mr. Kaepernick is perhaps the NFL’s most polarizing figure. He has gone unsigned since March 2017 and was one of the leaders of player protests during the national anthem, which were meant to call attention to racial injustices and social inequality. He has filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging the league and all 32 teams colluded to keep him unsigned because of his outspoken political views.
While Mr. Kaepernick is engaged in a pitched battle with the league, alleging that he has effectively been blackballed, Nike is one of the league’s biggest partners, with a reported billion-dollar apparel deal as the official uniform maker. The campaign comes months after Nike reupped its partnership with the league.
The NFL didn’t immediately respond to request for comment.
Mr. Kaepernick had been signed with Nike when he was an up-and-coming star with the 49ers, who he once led to back-to-back playoff appearances, including a Super Bowl. But following injuries and his absence from the league last season, he hadn’t been featured in Nike campaigns or had any prominent product lines.
Now Mr. Kaepernick has a new, multiyear deal with Nike, according to a person familiar with the negotiations, who said Mr. Kaepernick will be a face of the “Just Do It” campaign. The person described it as a “top of the line” deal for football players.
“Nike’s team recognized that, even with links to the league, that they wanted to be socially conscious and authentic in the spirit of what ‘Just Do It’ meant,” the person said. “Colin was the ideal fit and nobody represents that quite like Mr. Kaepernick.”
The Nike spokeswoman said that the characterization of the company’s decision is “not accurate” and that “Nike has a long-standing relationship with the NFL and works extensively with the league on all campaigns that use current players. Colin isn’t currently employed by an NFL team and has no contractual obligation to the NFL.”
The anthem protests by NFL players have been criticized by President Trump and a hot-button issue on social media. News of Mr. Kaepernick’s role in the ad campaign prompted calls on Twitter for a Nike boycott and images of people damaging their Nike products.
In recent months, Nike has been grappling with the fallout of an internal scandal in which nearly a dozen executives left the company amid complaints of inappropriate workplace behavior. Last month, two former Nike employees filed a lawsuit alleging gender discrimination and detailing specific accounts of alleged harassment.
Nike has said it “opposes discrimination of any type and has a longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
Mr. Kaepernick filed his grievance against the league last October. Last week, the arbitrator denied the NFL’s request for a summary judgment to dismiss the case.
Although filing for a summary judgment is often standard operating procedure, the ruling was a win for Mr. Kaepernick’s team because it effectively meant that the arbitrator saw sufficient evidence for Mr. Kaepernick’s grievance to raise a “genuine issue.”
Previously, The Wall Street Journal reported that, in depositions for Mr. Kaepernick’s grievance, NFL owners indicated that President Trump’s attacks on the player protests pushed them to change the rules.
After NFL owners changed the rules regarding the anthem in the spring to require players on the field to stand and “show respect” for the anthem, those rules were suspended after it drew the ire of players.
Negotiations between the NFL and player representatives continue. It is unclear if there will be a formal resolution before the league’s season begins Thursday.
Write to Andrew Beaton at [email protected]