Nike’s self-imposed vaccine mandate coming into effect this past weekend was big news. The mandate, which Nike reportedly announced in October, demands that all corporate Swoosh employees provide proof of vaccination or a valid medical or religious exemption by January 15. Those that don’t, will reportedly see their employment status terminated.
It’s a bold step. One that’s certain to be hit with backlash and criticism from both sides of the aisle. Mandates in general have been relatively controversial, with many being challenged legally in the United States. Nike’s will no doubt also be challenged, though being a private company means the brand will have more leeway to impose such restrictions on its workforce than the government.
Some may paint this as Nike forcing its employees to get vaccinated, but that’s not what’s happening. Nike is giving its corporate employees a choice, just that one of the two options comes with the consequence of losing your job. Getting sucked into a discussion on the morals or ethics of that is pointless, as it’s an argument no one can win — especially when neither side will cede to the other.
I’m vaccinated, I think everyone that can, should get vaccinated. I’m unsure how I feel about mandates forcing people to get vaccinated. Such are the complexities of being a person with opinions in this day and age. What I do find interesting, however, is that while Nike’s employees are required to be vaccinated, one of the brand’s star athletes is openly unvaccinated. Kyrie Irving, of the Brooklyn Nets, is currently only playing away games in the NBA due to his refusal to get the vaccine.
The saga is well-documented, but for those that don’t know what’s going on: Irving was one of several professional athletes who expressed reservations about the vaccine. His refusal to get vaccinated became an issue when various cities, New York City included, passed vaccine mandates for specific indoor locations. Now, as an unvaccinated NBA star making nearly $35 million during the 2021/22 season, Irving was unable to practice and play in home games. The Nets initially ruled Irving out until he could fully participate in basketball activities, but have since softened their stance to allow him to play in away games, as it became clear he wouldn’t be getting vaccinated.
Kyrie Irving also has a relatively successful signature Nike basketball sneaker. The player is obviously not an employee of Nike’s and therefore doesn’t need to meet the mandate requirements, but it raises the question whether this is a player Nike should be hitching its wagon to. The arguments that politics have no place in sports are invalid for multiple reasons. Firstly, it’s not politics, it’s science. And secondly, Nike has built its brand (and made a lot of money) off of its willingness to wade into controversial territory and take a stance.
Nike’s support of Colin Kaepernick is a great example. As is all the social justice messaging that Nike produced and released in 2020 and 2021. Currently, most of Nike’s major brand messaging is about taking a stance. In imposing a mandate for its employees, Nike has taken a stance with regard to Covid-19. Nike is saying that it believes the vaccine works and that everyone associated with the brand should get it. But in having Kyrie Irving wear a signature sneaker, the brand is contradicting itself. What makes this contradiction even more bizarre is that Irving isn’t just quietly unvaccinated. There has been a huge media storm around his (very personal) decision.
This is the same player that openly trashed his latest signature sneaker on social media, alleging that Nike hadn’t consulted with him on the design of the sneaker and was releasing it without his permission. It seems Nike has given Irving a lot of leeway in multiple situations.
The brand hasn’t made a statement regarding Irving, nor are there any reports or indications as to what will happen to the partnership. It could be that Nike is working on something behind the scenes. It could be that they’re not. What Nike needs to avoid, however, is the impression that it’s picking and choosing when it takes a stand. That there is one rule for employees and another for superstar athletes.
Kyrie Irving is paid a lot of money to represent the brand, but if a company believes strongly enough in a vaccine mandate for its employees to implement it, shouldn’t that be extended to, at the very least, one of the faces of the brand? Now is not the time for half-measures.