Meet the changemakers in Nike's controversial new 'Just Do It' campaign

Honoree Colin Kaepernick speaks onstage at ACLU SoCal Hosts Annual Bill of Rights Dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on December 3, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.
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Colin Kaepernick hasn't played football for the NFL in nearly two years, but the 30-year-old athlete's latest endorsement from athletic apparel giant Nike gives Fortune 500 backing to the social justice issues that have been rocking athletics.

Just days before football season officially kicks off, Kaepernick shared his image from Nike's 30th anniversary 'Just Do It' campaign on Twitter. The photo features a close-up of Kaepernick and a quote that reads, "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything."

Colin Kaepernick nike

Today, Nike's "Dream Crazy" commercial, narrated by Kaepernick, is set to air during the NFL's opening game.

Kaepernick and other athletes protested racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016, moves that sparked a nationwide controversy. Backlash to the former quarterback's inclusion in the campaign released Monday drove Nike's share price down this week and prompted some consumers to tear the Nike swooshes from their clothing in calls for a boycott.

Still, there's evidence that Nike's embrace of social justice has been good for the brand. Experts acknowledge that most response to the campaign has been neutral to positive. Nike received more than $43 million in media exposure from Kaepernick's tweet, Apex Marketing group estimated in an article for Fortune. Even as shares fell, some reports say the campaign moved millennials to snap up Nike stock.

Kaepernick is just one of several athletes-turned-changemakers that Nike will spotlight in its latest "Just Do It" campaign. Other athletes include Serena Williams, LeBron James, Odell Beckham Jr., Lacey Baker and Shaquem Griffin, all known for pushing barriers and shaping conversations on race, gender and ability.

These athletes are all leaders in their own way, showing the power of risk taking and belief in one's ability.

"We wanted to energize its meaning and introduce 'Just Do It' to a new generation of athletes," Nike's vice president of brand for North America Gino Fisanotti tells ESPN.

Meet the changemakers spotlighted in Nike's campaign.

Colin Kaepernick

Honoree Colin Kaepernick speaks onstage at ACLU SoCal Hosts Annual Bill of Rights Dinner at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on December 3, 2017 in Beverly Hills, California.
Getty Images

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and activist Colin Kaepernick started a nationwide conversation and inspired unprecedented public activism among the NFL and other athletes when he protested police brutality and social injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem in 2016.

"I am not looking for approval. I have to stand up for people that are oppressed," Kaepernick told NFL Media in a 2016 interview. "If they take football away, my endorsements from me, I know that I stood up for what is right."

Kaepernick parted from the NFL in 2017 and remains an unsigned player. Still, plenty of other NFL players have taken up his fight on the field. Hundreds have sat down, knelt or raised their fists during the national anthem before their games, according to the Associated Press, even in the face of criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Serena Williams

Serena Williams
David Orrell | CNBC

World-class tennis star Serena Williams has been training to make the big leagues in a predominantly white sport since she was just a kid. In her ad for Nike, shared on August 27, the world gets a look at a young Williams learning and playing on the tennis court.

"If you don't dare to try and chase your dreams, you'll rob yourself the joy of doing it. Don't just dream it," Williams wrote in a tweet featuring the video ad.

Serena Williams tweet

Just days before the ad premiered, Williams was criticized for wearing a full-body catsuit — which she wore for health-related reasons, to prevent blood clots after the birth of her first child — at the 2018 French Open in May this year.

"It feels like this suit represents all the women that have been through a lot mentally, physically, with their body to come back and have confidence and to believe in themselves," Williams told the Guardian. "I definitely feel like it is an opportunity for me to inspire a whole different group of amazing women and kids."

The same day Williams' Nike ad premiered, the athlete returned to the tennis court donning a one-shoulder black Nike dress with a ballerina-style tutu skirt that she helped design, as well as a leather jacket and silver sneakers.

LeBron James

LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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Basketball superstar LeBron James has come a long way from growing up in the projects of Akron, Ohio, to becoming one of the top-paid athletes in the world. He made sports history earlier this year when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their fourth straight NBA Finals in the spring.

Though his team lost, he reached other milestones. In July, he lived one of the "greatest moments" of his life: he opened a public elementary school that he co-founded, which also gives its graduates free tuition to college. Each of those 240 incoming students will receive a free bicycle, something he says brought him both joy and freedom as a child, feelings he'd like a new generation of young people to feel.

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter where people rank me all time. But for me, I have a personal goal to be the greatest," James told USA Today while he played for the Miami Heat in 2013. "When people said I couldn't get better, I continue to strive to get better. If I do that, I can be very high."

Lacey Baker

Professional skateboarder Lacey Baker speaks onstage during Glamour Celebrates 2017 Women Of The Year Live Summit.
Brad Barket | Getty Images

Pro-skater Lacey Baker became the first openly queer woman to join the Nike SB (skateboarding) team in 2017 and says "it's empowering" to join the big leagues of the sport. Baker's Nike ad for the "Just Do It" campaign features a quote that says, "You don't have to change who you are to change your world."

Lacey Baker tweet

For the 26-year-old, skateboarding isn't just a sport, it's a place for independence and creativity to blossom. Through her years in the sport, she's tapped into her identity as an athlete and become one of the most visible women in the sport.

According to Baker, "The DIY aspect of skateboarding is one of the biggest reasons that it's so fun for me."

"Because it's not a team thing, everyone is super individualistic. It's amazing to do anything you want with your skateboard," Baker said in a Nike interview. "When you skate, you see things in ways that people don't often see when they're driving or just walking down the street. Someone might see a planter, but as a skater, you see endless possibilities."

Odell Beckham Jr.

Odell Beckham of the New York Giants stands on the sidelines during a pre-season NFL game against the New England Patriots at MetLife Stadium on August 30, 2018.
Jeff Zelevansky | Getty Images

New York Giants football player Odell Beckham Jr. is the highest-paid wide-receiver in NFL history, but the 25-year-old faced two career-threatening injuries that momentarily derailed his success.

"I literally watched my world feel like it turned upside down," he told Giants.com. "I watched relationships close to me devour and things go wrong and things go sideways, and it was a lot of pain I went through the last 10 months."

Though he's still recovering, Beckham is back in the game with an optimistic outlook. His Nike ad features a quote that says, "Don't wait until you've won a ring to play like it."

OBJ3 tweet

"So just kind of taking it day-by-day and trying my best to just make my mindset every day I wake up, I'm going to be happy, I'm going to do this right, I'm going to do the very best that I can in whatever it is, whatever it is that I was doing," Beckham said. "Just changed the mindset, and it has helped me out a lot with everything. It has helped me out a lot."

Shaquem Griffin

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NFL player Shaquem Griffin is an linebacker who, this year, scored a position on the Seattle Seahawks alongside his cornerback twin-brother. Remarkably, according to Griffin, the Seahawks were the only team to officially interview him.

Griffin, 23, is also the first one-handed athlete in NFL history and he has been preparing for his professional debut since he was a kid.

In his "Just Do It" ad, Griffin is featured running toward a quarterback with a caption that reads, "Who would ever think a kid like me would go pro? Me."

Shaquem Griffin tweet

Still, even through adulthood, Griffin faced doubters.

"There were so many stories and so many instances where I had guys telling me that this game was for two-handed players, and not for one-handed players, and I'll go out here and get myself hurt," Griffin told CBS Sports. "I could've been that guy who said it's not worth getting hurt or not worth working hard for, but I never would let somebody tell me what I couldn't do or set limits or expectations on me ... because I know what I'm capable of."

"All I've got to do is make sure I work hard for it, and make sure when I'm doing it that I outwork everybody else, because it's going to show and pay off in the long run. And that's what I made sure I did," he added.

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