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Nike's Betsy Ross controversy highlights new dangers lurking in old American icons

Key Points
  • The 13-star flag, which was America's first, is said to have been designed by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross.
  • In recent years, the flag, like a number of early American symbols, has been co-opted by opposition groups to illustrate their ties to America before the federal government was established.
  • That tie though, according to multiple experts, is not necessarily one that Nike should have thought to sidestep.
VIDEO1:2801:28
Nike pulls 'Betsy Ross flag' sneakers after Colin Kaepernick steps in

An apparent attempt at celebrating America's history turned into political outrage this week, when Nike pulled its sneakers depicting an early version of the American flag, after former NFL football player Colin Kaepernick reportedly told the company the image is offensive and tied to slavery.

The controversy faced by Nike is the most recent example of the danger of relying on historical icons as modern interpretation changes along with political discord.

The 13-star flag, which was America's first, is said to have been designed by Philadelphia seamstress Betsy Ross (though historians note that lore was propagated by her grandson and never confirmed). While Ross lived during slavery, her flag's relationship to white supremacy was not immediately clear to a number of historians contacted by CNBC. The political leanings of Ross are unknown, but Philadelphia, with its large Quaker population, had neutral leanings during the Revolutionary War.

In recent years, the flag, like a number of early American symbols, has been co-opted by groups to harken back to a picture of America before a large centralized federal government was established. One of the more famous recent examples is the Tea Party's use of the Gadsden "rattlesnake" flag that has the phrase "Don't tread on me."

"It's probably mainly a matter of these groups' attempts to appropriate and fetishize the American Revolution for their own ugly (and historically inaccurate) purposes," said Scott P. Marler, associate professor of history at University of Memphis, in an email.

VIDEO3:4303:43
Nike made a smart decision by pulling 'Betsy Ross' flag shoes: Motus One CEO

That tie though, according to multiple experts, is not necessarily one that Nike should have thought to sidestep.

"If all these historians didn't know [the relationship between white supremacy and the Betsy Ross flag], then Nike shouldn't be expected to know it," said Mary Beth Norton, the Mary Donlon Alger professor of American History at Cornell University.

The "Betsy Ross" flag is not part of a database maintained by the Anti-Defamation League of more than 150 so-called hate symbols, including the Confederate flag, a noose, Pepe the Frog and Sadistic Souls, said Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow at ADL's Center on Extremism.

"The Betsy Ross flag is a common historical flag," said Pitcavage. He noted that while the flag has been used by white supremacists "from time to time," he has "never once thought about" adding the Betsy Ross flag to the list.

Still, the flag has caused controversy before. In 2016, students at a majority white high school in Michigan waved the 13-star flag during a football game, in which several black students were playing on the opposing team. They were also holding "Make America Great Again" flags in support of President Donald Trump.

The head of the NAACP's local chapter at the time said Ross's flag had been "co-opted by exclusionary movements," including "the so-called 'Patriot Movement' and other militia groups who are responding to America's increasing diversity with opposition and racial supremacy."

The NAACP and the Michigan high school didn't immediately respond to CNBC's requests for comment on this story.

In a statement provided to CNBC, Nike said the company "...made the decision to halt distribution" of the shoes " ... based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation's patriotic holiday."

While Nike's decision to pull the sneakers was intended to avoid offense, it also opened it up to political rebuke, and jeopardized potential financial incentives to add a manufacturing facility in Arizona.

"Instead of celebrating American history the week of our nation's independence, Nike has apparently decided that Betsy Ross is unworthy, and has bowed to the current onslaught of political correctness and historical revisionism," wrote Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Twitter, who said he was pulling funds earmarked for Nike for adding jobs in the state.

Ross's flag earned a formal commemoration on June 14, 1777, when the U.S. passed a law creating Flag Day. The legislation reads: "Resolved. That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation."

The flag has evolved since its earliest iteration, adding more stars as more states joined the union.

"Since patriot groups, militias, etc., tend to be firmly linked to '100% (white) Americanism,' the rumor has now taken root that the Ross flag constitutes another such symbol (like the Confederate flag)," said University of Memphis's Professor Marler.

"Well, if it wasn't before, it sure will be now, and it's a shame to concede it to them."

Nike shares closed down less than 1% in trading Tuesday afternoon, having risen about 8% over the past 12 months.

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