When Nike chose Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who started the protest of kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality, as the face of its latest Just Do It campaign, it plainly knew that it was courting controversy. After all, President Trump has made Kapernick and kneeling football players a regular target of his ire.
Predictably, the ad has set off a wave of complaints from the right, chiefly in the form of of Trump followers burning their Nike gear. (And no, the story about the guy who actually burned down his home as a result is not true.)
Ric Munoz, who was 37 at the time, was a Los Angeles runner who logged 80 miles a week and had run 10 marathons. While the idea of a gay man, let alone one who is HIV positive, being featured in an ad doesn’t seem like a big deal now, it did 23 years ago. Being HIV positive was still taboo, and treatments that we now take for granted to curb the disease were only coming onto the market.
An Olympic medalist like diver Greg Louganis would seem a natural for ad campaigns, but after revealing that he was gay and HIV positive, Louganis struggled financially because corporate America was too uncomfortable with him.
Indeed, ads with gay people (or gay models) were largely confined to the gay press. Munoz himself appeared in an ad for Miller beer in conjunction with his appearance at the Gay Games, but the ad was meant solely for a gay audience.
So for Nike to feature Munoz on a national campaign was a major breakthrough. “We wanted to tell an inspirational ‘Just do it’ story, and this seemed like a story that could appeal on a very emotional level,” said Joe McCarthy, Nike’s ad director at the time. “And it’s grounded in sports, making it a story appropriate for Nike to tell.”
Nike was a lot more coy about the Munoz ad than it is being with Kaepernick. For one, the ad identifies Munoz as HIV positive, but not gay. Moreover, McCarthy stressed that the company wasn’t “getting behind” a particular cause.
In the years since, Nike has kept up its embrace of LGBTQ athletes. Two years ago, the company featured transgender cyclist Chris Mosier in an ad campaign.
Still, for conservatives outraged about the Kaepernick ad, the Munoz ad proves that Nike isn’t acting out of character. It always like to court controversy and has been doing it for decades. It’s just the right that wasn’t paying attention.