As Colin Kaepernick watched from the apparel giant's headquarters in Oregon, Nike aired its highly anticipated ad featuring the quarterback known for his social protests during the NFL season opener Thursday night.
The spot highlighting the former 49ers quarterback locked in a grievance with the league aired during the first ad break in the third quarter of the Eagles-Falcons game, which started with no overt demonstrations by players during the national anthem.
A person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press that Kaepernick was watching the ad's first television airing on NBC at an event held at Nike's world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the visit were not announced publicly.
Still, some attendees posted accounts of the visit on social media, including video of Kaepernick speaking to a crowd Thursday several hours before the ad aired.
"You have to think beyond what you see around you," said Kaepernick, who hasn't spoken to the media publicly since opting out of his contract with San Francisco and becoming a free agent in 2017.
"You have to see the future that you believe in and that you want not just for yourself but all the people you see globally," he said.
Kaepernick's deal with Nike for the 30th anniversary of the "Just Do It" campaign was the most polarizing issue in sports this week, prompting heated debate on several topics including athletes protesting social injustice and Nike wading into political waters. Some fans responded to Kaepernick's sponsorship deal by cutting or burning gear with Nike's signature swoosh logo. Others argued the backlash and calls for a Nike boycott showed how debate has morphed beyond how to react to athletes trying to highlight issues like racial inequality and police shootings of unarmed minorities.
"I don't like what Nike did. I don't think it's appropriate what they did," President Donald Trump said in a Thursday interview with Fox News before a rally in Montana. "I honor the flag. I honor our national anthem and most of the people in this country feel the same way."
On Friday morning, Trump tweeted, "What was Nike thinking?"
There were no clear-cut protests as "The Star-Spangled Banner" played before the game with both teams on the field and the song broadcasted nationally.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Michael Bennett were on the sideline and neither really demonstrated during the song. Jenkins and Bennett regularly have either knelt or stayed off the field during the anthem to protest social injustice and racial inequality. They have been among the most vocal protesters since Kaepernick began similar demonstrations in 2016. Jenkins stood with teammates while Bennett wandered behind them near the Eagles bench and adjusted his equipment.
Jenkins said he thinks players should shift the focus of the debate away from the anthem itself and back to the issues they are trying to highlight.
"I think there's a huge need for us to turn the attention to not only the issues, but what players are actually doing in their communities to promote change," he said. "We're trying to move past the rhetoric of what's right or what's wrong in terms of the anthem and really focus on the systematic issues that are plaguing our communities."
No Falcons players were absent from the sideline and none has protested in the recent past.
The anthem has been a particularly thorny issue for the NFL, especially Trump urging owners to bench or fire players who demonstrate. Players say their message has been misconstrued into something against the American flag or the military.
Kaepernick's grievance against the league and team owners accuses owners of colluding to keep him off any roster. An arbitrator gave Kaepernick an incremental victory by allowing the challenge to go to trial.
Jenkins said Nike's commercial is changing the portrayal of Kaepernick in the public eye.
"Quite frankly, long after all of this is done (Kaepernick) will be looked at as somebody that changed this sport and changed the dynamics of all athletes in general in our country," Jenkins said.
The league and players union still haven't resolved whether players will be punished this season if they choose to kneel or demonstrate during the anthem. Owners approved a policy requiring players to stand if they are on the sideline during the song, allowing them to stay off the field if they wish.
But the league and union put that on hold after the Miami Dolphins faced backlash for classifying the protests as conduct potentially detrimental to the team — putting players at risk of fines or suspensions.