Nike nearly dropped Colin Kaepernick before putting him in its anniversary ads

Nike's controversial 30th anniversary ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick might not have happened as the sportswear company nearly dropped him, according to a report in The New York Times.

Kaepernick was unemployed after leaving the San Francisco 49ers at the end of the 2016 season, having made headlines for kneeling during the national anthem in protest against police brutality towards African-Americans in the U.S., a move that other players replicated.

In summer 2017, Nike executives debated dropping their sponsorship, the Times reported. Kaepernick didn't have a team and keeping him on its roster could diminish its relationship with the NFL, of which Nike is a partner.

So Nike marketers decided to cancel the contract with Kaepernick, according to a former employee who spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity because of a non-disclosure agreement, which CNBC has not been able to verify.

But Nigel Powell, the company's chief communications officer, stepped in, because of the possible backlash Nike would face if it was seen to be on the NFL's side.

Eventually, Nike's longtime ad agency Wieden and Kennedy pushed the company to make Kaepernick the face of its 30th anniversary "Dream Crazy" campaign, which was released on September 3. A two-minute spot, narrated by Kaepernick, has since been watched more than 26 million times on YouTube, but saw Nike shares drop 3 percent on September 4 amid a barrage of criticism.

Nike CEO Mark Parker said company executives are proud of the ad campaign on an earnings call Tuesday, as it announced a 10 percent rise in revenue to $9.95 billion and 15 percent jump in profit to $1.1 billion in its first quarter.

Nike had not responded to CNBC's request for comment at the time of publication, but KeJuan Wilkins, a spokesperson for the company told the Times: "It would be normal for a number of people to offer different perspectives. In keeping with Nike's mission, any final decisions are made as a group."