Kenner Mayor Ben Zahn's anti-Nike policy faced growing criticism on Monday, forcing him to defend a ban on Nike apparel purchases by Kenner recreational clubs amid protests in the city that drew local activists and politicians as well as members of the New Orleans Saints.
A memo from Zahn that surfaced online over the weekend appeared to order the head of Kenner's Parks and Recreation Department to ban the purchase of Nike apparel by booster clubs affiliated with the department.
In a statement Monday, Zahn said the new policy was designed to prevent the use of tax dollars to support a corporation's political position, but it instead sparked a broad response from politicians, residents and prominent local voices who saw it as an attempt to inject Kenner into a controversial national political debate through a potentially unenforceable policy.
"It's a shame we're here for this," said Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears, addressing a crowd of several hundred protesters who gathered Monday evening at Kenner's Susan Park Gymnasium. "These policies are illegal."
The rally did not attract any members of the Kenner City Council, though some members of the Saints were in attendance, including Cam Jordan, Terron Armstead and Craig Robertson.
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The Kenner policy and the resulting protests come amid the broader controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who sparked a national discussion on race and patriotism for his decision to kneel during the national anthem.
Kaepernick has said his decision to kneel before the start of NFL games was a protest against police killings of African-Americans. His release by the 49ers led to broader protests by NFL players during playing of the national anthem before games last fall.
With the start of this year's NFL season, Kaepernick has been featured in a prominent, and controversial, ad campaign by Nike focusing on his decision to protest.
Zahn's Nike ban, as well as his statement Monday, ignited a firestorm online as well as in the New Orleans area.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said Zahn's policy was "out of step" with the values of her city and "not reflective of the way our city does business." She said that Louis Armstrong International Airport, which is located in Kenner but owned by the City of New Orleans, would not follow the policy.
Gregory Carroll, the Kenner City Council’s lone black member, said he had no knowledge of the memo before it was released and was “100 percent against" the new policy. "I will meet with the mayor and other council members in an effort to rescind this directive,” he said in a statement posted online Sunday.
A Kenner city councilman had harsh words Sunday in reaction to a memo widely circulated on social media appearing to show Mayor Ben Zahn calli…
Other council members also said they had no knowledge of the memo before it was released. Booster clubs were also not informed of the policy and learned of the memo's existence over the weekend, several club members said.
Zahn received support from some corners, however.
“Great message, Mayor Zahn,” Jason Durel wrote on a Kenner-focused Facebook page. “Our tax dollars should not be used to support anyone’s political agenda.”
The anti-Nike policy marks the second time this summer that politicians in Louisiana have attempted to bar certain companies from doing business with the state because of their political positions. Last month, the state Bond Commission voted to reject bids from two of the nation’s largest banks — Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Citigroup — due to a decision by the banks that they would limit their business with firearms companies.
Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry called the two banks’ policies “fascism at its best," though others questioned whether the policy of shunning the two companies would raise costs for Louisiana borrowers.
Zahn insisted that his memo — which also ordered any purchases made by booster clubs to be routed through the city administration — did not ban Nike gear from being worn at the city’s parks.
In his Monday statement, Zahn praised Nike for its “message of inclusion and encouragement for everyone to be their best and dream big.” But in promoting that message, he said, “Nike, in its zeal to sell shoes, chose to promote and sell a political message.”
Many questions related to the policy remained unanswered following Zahn's statements, including whether the ban is enforceable on clubs that often raise money privately in addition to receiving taxpayer funds.
The city’s booster clubs are generally attached to parks or playgrounds, operating concession stands and working to improve the parks or other facilities. Kenner's budget provides several thousand dollars per year for the clubs, but many also raise money via food sales and other fundraisers.
Tulane law school professor Keith Werhan said that Zahn would likely be limited to exercising control over public money. A 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision would prohibit the city from canceling any existing contracts because of Nike’s political speech, he said. And it remains an open question whether Zahn can prevent any new contracts from being executed, or if he can influence the spending of privately raised money.
“If the boosters are private and he’s trying to extend the prohibition to non-government money, that seems to be more of a problem,” Werhan said.
Questions have also been raised about whether a prohibition on buying Nike products would violate the state's public bid law, which generally requires public bodies to select the lowest priced responsive bidder.
The memo was not the first statement Zahn has made about NFL players kneeling for the national anthem. On Sept. 2, at the City’s Freedom Fest, Zahn introduced the singer of the national anthem by telling the crowd, "In the city of Kenner, we all stand."
A Kenner spokesman did not respond to an email question about whether the city is reviewing its other private vendors for “political campaigns.”
At the protest Monday evening, coach Victor Franklin brought along nine members of his 7- and 8-year-olds football team at Lincoln Manor playground in Kenner.
Franklin said he had to work hard to get the football program going, and Zahn’s comments were making it more difficult.
“I have parents trying to pull their kids out of the program,“ he said. “Parents don’t like what the mayor said.”