Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., took to social media on Thursday to wish Americans a happy Independence Day – and to take a thinly veiled shot at Nike and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
"Happy Fourth of July!," McConnell tweeted alongside an image of the Betsy Ross flag.
Nike pulled the Air Max 1 USA shoe, which included a Revolutionary-era U.S. flag with 13 white stars in a circle on the heel. Kaepernick reached out to Nike after learning they planned to release the sneaker to explain that the flag recalls an era when black people were enslaved and that it has been appropriated by white nationalist groups, a person familiar with the conversation told The Associated Press.
Nike decided to recall the shoe after it had been already sent to retailers to go on sale this week for the July Fourth holiday, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The decision caused an instant backlash among conservatives who accused Nike of denigrating U.S. history.
"If we’re in a political environment where the American flag has become controversial to Americans, I think we've got a problem," McConnell said on Tuesday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"I hope Nike either releases these shoes or some other shoe maker picks up the flag, puts it on a pair of shoes and starts selling it. I’ll make the first order," he added.
Others expressed surprise that the symbol known as the "Betsy Ross" flag, so named after the beloved Philadelphia woman credited with designing it, could be considered offensive. Although some extremist groups appear to have appropriated the flag, it is not widely viewed as a symbol of hate, and is used in museums that focus on 18th century U.S. history.
The Anti-Defamation League does not include it in its database of hate symbols. Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow for the ADL's Center on Extremism, said extremist groups have occasionally used it, but the flag is most commonly used by people for patriotic purposes.
"We view it as essentially an innocuous historical flag," Pitcavage said. "It's not a thing in the white supremacist movement."
Nike said in statement that "it pulled the shoe based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation's patriotic holiday." The company pushed back against criticism that the decision was being "anti-American."
"Nike is a company proud of its American heritage and our continuing engagement supporting thousands of American athletes including the U.S. Olympic team and U.S. Soccer teams," Nike said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.