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U.S. Business Nike pulls ‘Betsy Ross Flag’ sneaker after criticism of slavery-era imagery

This undated product image shows Nike Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July shoes with the Betsy Ross flag on them.

The Associated Press

Nike has cancelled the release of a sneaker that featured the 13-star “Betsy Ross flag,” igniting the latest flare-up in the nation’s culture wars and causing the governor of Arizona to order the withdrawal of funding for a planned multimillion-dollar Nike factory in that state.

The decision was reportedly prompted by Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback and social-justice activist, who had privately criticized the design to Nike, according to The Wall Street Journal. The athletic-wear company did not say why it had pulled the sneaker.

“Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured an old version of the American flag,” Sandra Carreon-John, a spokeswoman for Nike, said in a statement Tuesday.

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While people all across the political spectrum debated Nike’s decision on social media, Gov. Doug Ducey, R-Ariz., announced on Twitter that he would oppose the company’s plans by pulling back state support for a Nike plant that would have employed more than 500 people. Nike had announced Monday that it planned to open the factory in Goodyear, Arizona.

“Words cannot express my disappointment at this terrible decision,” Ducey tweeted. “I am embarrassed for Nike. Nike has made its decision, and now we’re making ours. I’ve ordered the Arizona Commerce Authority to withdraw all financial incentive dollars under their discretion that the State was providing for the company to locate here.”

The governor added: “Arizona’s economy is doing just fine without Nike. We don’t need to suck up to companies that consciously denigrate our nation’s history.”

The heels of the Air Max shoe feature the flag, in which 13 white stars are arranged in a circle over the traditional field of blue. Betsy Ross, a Philadelphia seamstress, is widely credited with creating the flag at George Washington’s behest, although most scholars dispute that story as legend, according to the Library of Congress.

To many, the flag is merely a relic, a symbol of America’s past. But it has, at least in recent years, cropped up in association with racist ideologies.

When Ku Klux Klan flyers were distributed alongside candy in a New York town last summer, the material featured a Klansman flanked by the Confederate flag and the Betsy Ross flag, according to CNN. Similar imagery was reportedly included in a letter sent to a college newspaper in Washington the year before.

In 2016, a local school superintendent in Michigan apologized after students waved the flag alongside a Trump political banner at a football game, writing in a letter to parents that the Betsy Ross flag “to some symbolizes exclusion and hate.”

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According to a 2013 investigation by The Albany Herald in Georgia, at least some local Klan units were required to use either that flag or the Confederate flag at ritualistic meetings.

Prominent conservatives argued that Nike’s cancellation of the shoe was unpatriotic.

“It’s a good thing Nike only wants to sell sneakers to people who hate the American flag,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, wrote on Twitter.

Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate, tweeted, “Just so you know how this works now: Nothing can happen in America any more if Colin Kaepernick doesn’t like it.”

Kaepernick became a face of the social-justice movement in 2016 after he began kneeling during the national anthem at San Francisco 49ers games to protest the killing of black people by police and racial inequality in the United States.

His acts of protest inspired other professional athletes to begin kneeling as well, but they came under fire from politicians including President Donald Trump, who argued that they were disrespecting the country and the military.

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Last year, Nike made Kaepernick the face of its “Just Do It” campaign celebrating the company’s 30th anniversary. That decision drew calls for a boycott of Nike.

For some, the Betsy Ross flag is less representative of a fight for freedom than it is of a period when anyone who was not a white man was oppressed, said Americus Reed, a marketing professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

“For lots of people, it’s quite similar to, say, the Confederate flag,” he said. “The revolution now is one of diversity, of all kinds of dimensions that go beyond just white males – women, people of colour, people of different sexual orientations. It’s a different world, and it’s a different flag.”

The uproar may have been stoked by the sensitive political environment, Reed said.

“Emotions are hot, and they are fast, and they are knee-jerk,” he said. “When an emotional process takes over, when identity is wrapped up in something like the flag, there’s little opportunity to rationally think through things, like what the flag was objectively meant to stand for in 1777.”

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