Nike Reacts Fleet-Footedly to Zion Williamson Incident

Thom Weidlich 02.28.19


Nike Inc. did a fairly good job dealing with a crisis last week. It responded seriously and quickly, which is appropriate for a company named after the goddess of speed. Now it will have to follow through even if, as happens, memory of the incident eventually fades.

As is now well known, just 33 seconds after the start of a game on the night of Wednesday, Feb. 20, Duke University basketball star Zion Williamson was downed when one of his Nike sneakers split apart. Williamson’s spill was particularly high-profile because Durham, North Carolina-based Duke was playing archrival University of North Carolina, located 10 miles down the road in Chapel Hill.

Nike had a statement out that night. “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery,” it said. “The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

That was an appropriate response. The company acknowledged the issue and its seriousness, but didn’t speak beyond the facts it knew at the time. It emphasized that it was investigating.

The next day, Nike officials met with Duke personnel — again, highlighting the seriousness with which it was taking the situation. It was a smart move reminiscent of Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson traveling to Philadelphia after a racial incident in a store there last year.

“There was no way Nike was going to let one of their top clients chew on just a statement,” wrote Jeff Gravley, sports anchor for WRAL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Raleigh, North Carolina. “Phone calls and their trip to Durham followed.”

Stock Drop

The story became huge. The day of that meeting, Thursday, Nike’s stock dropped 1.1 percent, though it recovered on Friday.

The episode brought up, once again, the contentious issue of whether college basketball players should be paid. If Williamson’s injury had been serious (it wasn’t), it could have ended his chances at a multimillion-dollar professional career. He is a favorite to be the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick this year, and some say he should sit out the rest of the college season so as not to blow his chances with an injury.

Nike, of course, is implicated in the connection between money and college sports; for one thing, it pays Duke millions for the school to mandate that its players wear the brand.

“The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

— Nike

The incident raises another basic idea about crisis-communications: Equipment makers should be prepared for crises that involve equipment failure. Nike itself had warning that such a mishap could occur. According to The Wall Street Journal, this wasn’t the first time a Nike shoe fell apart during a game: “In 2016, the Orlando Magic’s Aaron Gordon’s Nike shoe tore open. NBA players Manu Ginóbili and Andrew Bogut have also experienced similar malfunctions.”

Even though Williamson’s injury wasn’t dire, the shoe failure could raise questions about Nike’s quality. When its probe is complete, the company should release the results to show it’s transparent and to assuage fears customers may have about that.

Image Credit: Nike

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