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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

Nike move threatens American icon

Tom Stiglich, Creator Syndicate

Tom Stiglich, Creator Syndicate

A girl I went to elementary school with was somehow related to Betsy Ross. It was a big, big deal. At least to me.

Betsy Ross made the first American flag, we were taught in school — the template for the flag that adorned Apollo rockets into space, the flag that had just been planted on the moon.

We pledged allegiance to Ross’ flag each morning, the 50-star variety. We removed our caps and sang to it before baseball games. Police officers saluted when it passed at local parades. Sometimes they cried as it did. And there, at the fourth-grade art table next to me, sat a beautiful, blushing girl named Wendy who’s great-, great-, great- grand-something had created its original, or so the legend goes — the red- white-and-blue standard with a circle of 13 stars.

Wow. Just wow.

You don’t need to have gone to school with a Ross descendant to be furious today with Nike, the shoe manufacturer based in Beaverton, Oregon. The so-called Betsy Ross flag belongs to each of us, and Nike, along with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, just fumbled it away. They handed it to a bunch of white supremacists, if Kaepernick is to be believed, and now it’s up to us to take it back.

It started with Nike trying to capitalize on the Colonial American flag. There was a time when that alone would have caused outrage, but that era is long and sadly past. Timed to the Fourth of July, Nike released the Air Max 1 USA, sneaker with the 13-star Betsy Ross flag on its heal, thinking it would sell like hot cakes at $120 a pair.

Kaepernick, a Nike endorser who initiated the controversial NFL national anthem protests, cried foul, pointing out that some nativist groups, representing a tiny iota of the U.S. population, fly the flag to celebrate an America that still had slavery. Nike panicked and pulled the sneaker line. In an instant, a precious, 243-year-old American icon became a potential hate symbol in popular culture.

The profanities one wants to scream . . .

The public blowback against the corporate executives in Beaverton has been gratifyingly intense, but the damage to Ross’ flag is substantial. And it could endure. We walk on eggshells in America today. Will some now hesitate before unfurling a 13-star flag? Will that reluctance compound Nike’s blunder?

It’s doubtful that Nike executives realize just how much they messed up here. It is no doubt in crisis public-relations mode, but only as a sneaker company. One wonders whether it is at all considering the damage it has inadvertently done to this cherished and age-old American symbol. Some Nike executives, no doubt, might even be assessing the potential upside the company will receive in publicity from the Nike Air Max 1 USA debacle.

The one thing Nike could do to acknowledge its blunder is re-release the Ross sneaker along with a nationwide apology for overreacting and effectively surrendering the 13-star flag to racists. But it won’t. And it won’t because of the negative symbolism with which the company, itself, just gave the standard.

It’s up to us, then, to fly Ross’ flag proudly for what it truly represents — the promised freedoms of an imperfect union that will struggle mightily to realize its high ideals. That is the core of American pride, something Kaepernick and Nike executives inexplicably missed in the fourth grade.

 William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.