Nike thinks it can attract like-minded star athletes by featuring Colin Kaepernick in its 30th anniversary "Just Do It" marketing campaign, according to sources who spoke with CNBC's Andrew Ross Sorkin.
Many professional athletes side with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, whose 2016 national anthem protests aimed at drawing attention to the treatment of African-Americans spread like wildfire in the NFL.
"If you [Nike] think you're in the business of attracting big-name athletes to be your endorsers — and you think kids go out and buy sneakers because of those endorsers — that's [the reason]," Sorkin said Friday on "Squawk Box."
Despite backlash from some sports fans and President Donald Trump, Nike sees the move as a "business marketing decision," said Sorkin, who is also a columnist for The New York Times and founder and editor-at-large of the Times' DealBook. "They also think this is a moral issue."
Trump tweeted on Friday morning: "What was Nike thinking?"
"I don't like what Nike did. I don't think it's appropriate," the president said in a Fox News interview that aired Friday morning. "I honor the flag. I honor our national anthem."
The divisive kneeling issue came to a head after the conclusion of the NFL's 2017-2018 season, with the league banning on-field kneeling during the anthem but allowing for players who don't want to stand to stay in the locker room until the anthem is over.
The new Nike ad, narrated by Kaepernick, was shown Thursday evening during the NFL season kickoff, which featured the Atlanta Falcons losing to the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
Sorkin said the NFL is in a tough spot because the league signed an eight-year contract extension in March with Nike for uniforms and apparel. Nike took over as the official supplier for the league in 2012.
"It's going to get complicated when all the athletes, NFL athletes, start to wear Kaepernick shoes on the NFL field. And that becomes their version of protest without kneeling themselves," Sorkin said.
Neither the NFL nor Nike responded to CNBC's request for comment.