On September 18, 2016, two American Football players for the San Francisco 49ers, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, knelt during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner prior to the match against Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The athletes’ refusal to stand for the national anthem was a highly visible protest against racial injustice that has long permeated parts of US society and which has blighted Donald Trump’s presidency.

Predictably, the action sparked a fierce backlash from allegedly patriotic media and provoked the ire of President Trump, who urged the National Football League (NFL) to suspend or fire players involved in the protest.

Both players were duly dropped from league matches. Angry at the way they had been treated, they filed a collusion grievance against the NFL, accusing the organisation of blacklisting them.

The footballers’ high profile protest encapsulates the concept of moral responsibility. In any organisation, employees must always ask themselves “how am I fulfilling my role?”

But we would argue that these two players are much more than team players: they undertook a leadership responsibility. It is clear that they are role models for other athletes and black people in general. And this is where moral responsibility lies.   

Mr Reid was quickly rehabilitated and signed for Carolina Panthers, the following season. On the other hand, Mr Kaepernick, a star quarterback with a huge public following, refused all offers, including a lucrative opportunity to join the Alliance of American Football. He decided to stay on and fight the power and influence of the Super Bowl’s governing body head on. 

The controversy was reignited when in 2018 sports equipment manufacturer Nike appointed Kaepernick as one of the stars of its 'Just Do It' advertising campaign which featured a series of uncompromising role models. Dramatic images of an unrepentant Kaepernick were seen on billboards and in magazines across the US.

The Nike ad displayed a black-and-white close-up of Mr Kaepernick‘s face and the words: “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything. Just do it.” This added a new twist to the moral leadership debate.

In response to rising racial discrimination across the US, Mr Kaepernick faced clear choices. He could have played safe and stuck to his profession in a narrow technical sense. He was a footballer, not a politician; he could have turned his back on this issue. He could have conformed but did not.  

What Mr Kaepernick’s dispute with the NFL tells us is that there are no unambiguously clear distinctions between having strongly held personal beliefs and expressing them in public.

What he did, in fact, was to redefine his role by taking moral considerations into account. He showed moral imagination. Being a footballer was not simply a question of technical expertise but, more broadly, living a certain sort of life - a life in which football is played in a society where equality prevails.

Many people identified with Nike’s decision to use an image of Mr Kaepernick in its advertising campaign. Mr Kaepernick’s position was affirmed by one of the US' biggest sports companies. The company had taken an uncompromising moral stand. Its advertising campaign which featured black sporting celebrities was supported by athletes like the tennis player Serena Williams and golfer Tiger Woods.

Nike’s decision strengthened Mr Kaepernick’s hand in his ongoing collusion lawsuit against the NFL because the sports brand had been the govererning body's main corporate partner since 2012. Switching the focus of the debate to the corporate world polarised public opinion and re-opened the debate over racial discrimination.

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Nike’s public support for Mr Kaepernick resulted in an immediate fall in the value of the company’s shares of 3.9 per cent. It provoked a Twitter storm including several tweets from President Trump including the following: “Nike is getting absolutely killed with anger and boycotts. I wonder whether they had any idea it would be this way? So far as the NFL is concerned, I just find it hard to watch, and always will, until they stand for the FLAG!”

But here is the point. Although sales initially dipped, they then bounced back. Since the 'Just Do It' campaign was launched in September 2018, Nike’s online sales have taken off and have, so far, risen 31 per cent according to a leading e-commerce analyst. 

When a company takes on a leadership role which combines moral imagination with moral responsibility, it can make a positive difference to public perceptions and brand image by stating the company’s values. It is often a risk worth taking. 

The latest news is that since Nike weighed in behind Mr Kaepernick the NFL has had to re-assess the reputational damage it has suffered because of the affair.

In February the NFL and Mr Kaepernick settled their long running legal dispute out of court. Taking into account lost salary and legal costs incurred, the athlete’s settlement could have been in the region of tens of millions of dollars.

The NFL’s president of communications and public affairs issued the following statement: “We embrace the role and responsibility of everyone involved with this game to promote meaningful, positive change in our communities. The social justice issues that Colin and other professional athletes have raised deserve our attention and action.”

So what lessons have been learned? There is no clear-cut distinction between a frame which prompts moral awareness and a business-driven agenda in which moral considerations are ignored or are brushed aside.

Nike’s position was that it wanted to unite people, not to divide them. And the company saw that the best way of achieving this was to take an uncompromising stand, which, over time, would replace the immediate outrage over Mr Kaepernick’s principled protest.

In terms of the general lessons for business, it is clear that decision-making is much more than calculated reasoning and weighing up the pros and cons. If that were the case then all decisions could be taken by a robot.

In setting up a new company, entrepreneurs will often make a leap of faith and take considerable risk. More generally, a leap of faith is undertaken by anyone who makes a decision. Consequences can never be fully worked out.

A decision expresses an existential outlook - how one sees the work and one’s role in it. Mr Kaepernick’s and Nike’s principled stance widens our sense of professional and business responsibility - it is not only what we do but, critically, what we do it for.

Purpose can never be driven away from business or any job. Insofar as this is the case, purpose forces leaders to think about values, responsibility and, ultimately, the meaning of life. 

Further reading:    

Hari Tsoukas (2018) "Strategy and virtue: developing strategy-as-practice through virtue ethics", Strategic Organization, 16, 3, 323-351.

Shotter, J. and Tsoukas, H. (2014) "In search of Phronesis: leadership and the art of judgment", Academy of Management Learning & Education, Volume 13, Number 2, 224-243.

Tsoukas, H. (2019) "Leadership, The American Academy of Management, and President Trump’s travel ban: A case study in moral imagination", Journal of Business Ethics.

Hari Tsoukas is Professor of Organisation Behaviour and Leadership and the Art of Judgement on the Executive MBA and Executive MBA (London).

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