Sport fans and media have been known to overreact. There was the hoopla surrounding LeBron James’ first foray into free agency. There was the recent Demar DeRozan trade debacle where the RCMP almost had to set up sandbags to stop the flood of tears. Oh, and don’t forget about Curt Schilling’s bloody sock. Sports fans operate at maximum dramatics in belief that the sky is perpetually falling. This was in full effect when projected first overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft and Duke forward, Zion Williamson, was injured because of a defective Nike shoe.
Firstly, Zion is fine and the injury is a mild knee sprain. The night it occurred, dozens of other professional athletes suffered far more significant injuries, most of which didn’t make the front page of ESPN. This situation has been brewing as a potential nightmare for Nike. It has called into question the integrity of their company, the quality of their products while also driving a stake through its brand value.
Nike has always prided itself on celebrating athletes and providing the means for them to run faster and jump higher. Think about Nike’s advertising and try to picture the number of times you’ve actually seen one of their shoes prominently featured. Their model is to showcase high-performance athletes doing their thing. With the dust not even close to settling, the most interesting storyline of Shoegate has been whether we’re witnessing the beginning of the end for the world’s most iconic brand.
Shoegate and the Fallout
Zion has already been crowned the unanimous choice for the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft and many have called him the most prolific prospect since LeBron James. It’s like the world suddenly forgot that Michael Beasley and Keith Van Horn ever existed. Shoegate, as it would instantly be called since everything is a modern Watergate, blew into the public consciousness when Zion slipped during a routine play against North Carolina. The culprit wasn’t a flagrant foul or missed call, it was that his Nike shoe exploded as if someone had pressed a detonator. This led to a freak injury and put Nike in the crosshairs of sports fans and investors. In hours, Nike closed shop amid a plummeting stock price and public backlash. Okay, this didn’t happen but the online outrage would make you think that it had. As of now, the only significant result has been Nike experiencing a 1.1% drop in their stock price ($84.86 to $83.93), which has been attributed to the Zion injury and equates to over a billion dollars lost. It should be mentioned that as of February 22nd, the stock price had already rebounded to its pre-Shoegate price.
Can We Learn from Nike’s Response?
Let’s be honest, Nike has withstood bigger media maelstrom’s than this. This is a company that has openly defended their global manufacturing practices, which have been perceived as immoral for decades. It got to the point where they were synonymous with the term, “sweatshop labour”.
With respect to Zion, Nike acted as any company should when the quality of their products or services is questioned. They conveyed concern and promptly began looking into the matter. They didn’t overreact or play into the public’s ridicule or allow themselves to become a meme. The company’s official statement was personable, focused on Zion and clearly showed that they recognize the issue, believe it to be isolated and won’t sweep it under the rug: At the centre of Shoegate is Nike’s PG 2.5, which according to their website is “light yet strong, with a supportive strap and comfortable cushioning that responds to every fast, focused step.” They didn’t rush to revise the product description knowing it would have poured gasoline on the flame of controversy. They stayed the course.
The lesson is an important one for companies trying to navigate the digital space. Stand by your products when they fail, prove that it was an isolated incident and move on. Never stray too far off brand or off message unless you’ve really done something wrong. Logically, it’s fair to surmise that Shoegate is the result of one bad pair of shoes that made it off the assembly line and out of the factory. It is very unlikely that another one will spontaneously explode during an innocuous play. Additionally, it will continue to be worn by dozens of NBA players, including the shoe’s namesake and ambassador, Paul George.
While emotions run hot, this isn’t another Jared Fogle situation. In that scenario, Subway was forced to deal with its association to a spokesman who he was charged with horrific crimes against children. They immediately had to distance themselves from Jared Fogle while defending their history with him. They had to earn the trust of customers all over again, and today, they remain a leader in their space in part to how they handled that crisis.
So, Who Really Cares?
Despite what some will have you believe,, this was never really a story. It’s more in the bucket of “is it a blue or gold dress” than Trump’s Russian conspiracy. Zion is at a level where everything he does is big news but the injury was clearly minor from the moment he stood up. The story reached a point of frenzy because people assumed there would be a greater fallout for Nike and, let’s be honest, people love when big brands fail. From a branding and communications perspective, there’s a lot here to learn about dealing with knee jerk reactions and surviving the court of public opinion. The biggest lesson, though, is drawn from Nike’s measured response. It would have been easy to pull the shoes from shelves or hold an emergency board meeting but they knew better. They understand that their name and logo holds weight and they were smart to stick to their values and stand behind their products.