Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University and a close ally of President Trump, told USA TODAY Sports in a phone conversation Friday that Nike’s ad campaign centered around Colin Kaepernick might cause the school to re-consider its relationship with the apparel company, which signed a contract last year to outfit Liberty’s athletic teams through 2024.
“We’re exploring the situation,” Falwell said. “If Nike really does believe that law enforcement in this country is unfair and biased, I think we will look around. If we have a contract, we’ll honor it, but we strongly support law enforcement and strongly support our military and veterans who died to protect our freedoms and if the company really believes what Colin Kaepernick believes, it’s going to be hard for us to keep doing business with them.
“But if it’s just a publicity stunt to bring attention to Nike or whatever, that’s different. We understand that. We understand how marketing works. But they’re going to have to convince us that they’re not proactively attacking law enforcement officers and our military. If that’s the reason behind using this ad, we’re going to have a hard time staying.”
Kaepernick and NFL players who have followed his lead in taking a knee during the national anthem have said they are doing so to call attention to social injustice issues, and not as a sign of disrespect for the military or law enforcement.
Falwells high profile and public support for Trump early in his campaign have brought Republican party politics to the forefront of Libertys image.
Trump, of course, has latched onto NFL players actions as a cultural wedge issue that he’s talked about at rallies and tweeted about regularly. Though Kaepernick has not been on an NFL roster the past two seasons, he has remained prominent as the face of that protest.
Falwell was particularly concerned about Kaepernick wearing socks that depicted police officers as pigs during practice with the San Francisco 49ers in 2016. Kaepernick issued somewhat of an apology for that in an Instagram post, saying they represented “rogue cops” who “not only put the community in danger, but also put the cops that have the right intentions in danger by creating an environment of tension and mistrust.”
Still, that image has been used frequently by conservatives and others to criticize Kaepernick’s stance.
“I didn’t like the socks with the cops depicted as pigs and I think if Nike really feels the same way I’m sure we can find a company that’s just as good to deal with,” Falwell said. “We just want to find out what the company is trying to achieve. Are they trying to use their wealth and influence to attack law enforcement or just make some money by exploiting the attention this former quarterback is getting?”
Falwell said he hadn’t seen the full TV ad, which was released on social media Wednesday and aired Thursday night on NBC during the third quarter of the Falcons-Eagles game. He said he saw parts of it on a news show.
Though associating with Kaepernick has caused some measure of controversy, the ad itself focuses on an inspirational message built around young athletes overcoming obstacles, not national anthem protests.
Falwell said he didn’t immediately know the terms of the contract with Nike that would trigger termination.
Nike didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
“It’s just something we’re exploring,” Falwell said. “It could be a marketing ploy and if it is, we will probably overlook it. But if it’s really how the leadership of the company feels and they’re attacking law enforcement and military folks on purpose and then why deal with them when there’s plenty of others out there.”
Falwell, who has reformed the Lynchburg, Va., campus thanks largely to revenue from a robust online degree program, has aggressively sought a higher profile for Liberty’s athletics program in recent years.
After trying unsuccessfully to earn an invitation into an FBS conference for football, Liberty got a waiver from the NCAA to move up last year as an independent and notched a notable upset of Baylor.
The Flames play at Army on Saturday and will appear on the schedule of several top programs in the future.