There's a Lie at the Heart of Nike's New Kaepernick Ad
The tagline should be: "Believe in something. Even when the billionaires who control your fate take your dream away."
A billboard in San Francisco. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty
Nothing this side of an Adele ballad tugs so expertly at the heartstrings as a strong Nike TV spot. Their predictability somehow doesn't rob them of their power—they drag the feelings out of you until you're a bit teary-eyed and angry at the ad for making you feel that way. "Dream Crazy," the two-minute spot that came out online Wednesday in advance of the NFL season opener, follows in that tradition by somehow being more than the sum of its mawkish parts. There's a spare piano riff; shot after shot of athletes failing and then triumphing; and narration that describes stories of struggle so improbable they seem custom-built for this sort of commercial, including a child who wrestles with no legs, an NFL player with one hand, and a wheelchair-bound basketball player, along with traditional stars like LeBron James and Serena Williams and Odell Beckham, Jr.
What makes this ad different, of course, is the voice doing the narration. Nike's decision to use Colin Kaepernick as its spokesman inspired sneaker-burning rage among the right-wing set even before the commercial saw the light of day because the company seemed to be siding with the former NFL quarterback's protests against racial inequality and police brutality. The protests allegedly got him blackballed by the league's owners—a judge recently ruled his collusion case could move forward—and have become one of the most divisive cultural issues in recent memory. On the surface at least, Nike is siding with Kaepernick and against the right.
Nike has a long history of making ads that take progressive stances on social issues, and given that Kaepernick's jersey sales have remained remarkably strong even though he hasn't played in the league since 2016, building a campaign around him was obviously an extremely calculated risk. But while the ad celebrates Kaepernick, it also twists and flattens his narrative into one of straightforward persistence in the face of long odds. "Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything," is the campaign's tagline. That is one lesson to take from what happened to Kaepernick, I suppose, but it ignores what he was protesting and who objected to his protests. A more accurate tagline might be: "Believe in something. Even when the billionaires who control your fate take your dream away."
Kaepernick's protest was originally his way of taking a personal stance against racism in the US, but quickly spun out into an utterly incoherent debate about veterans, free speech, and nearly every other flash point in modern American politics. Other players have joined his cause and spoken out about prison reform and racial injustice; in response to a league rule seeking to compel players to stand for the anthem, some have simply opted to stay off the field while the song is played. Meanwhile, Kaepernick has become a prominent public face of anti-racist activism because he refused to stop speaking out even in the face of losing millions of dollars. He's poured some of the money he does have into teaching young kids of color their rights when it comes to the police.
The ad glides past all of that. "Nike pointedly does not decry white supremacy, police violence, the carceral state, or environmental racism—all themes Kaepernick has touched on via his public statements and charitable work," Nathanial Friedman wrote in the Baffler this week, adding, "This glaring omission isn’t to condemn the ad or its champions. It’s just worth noting that there’s only so much said here." A shoe company is not going to launch a full-scale attack on American racism; probably the best we can expect from Nike is an acknowledgement that Kaepernick is an inspirational enough figure to move sneakers.
That doesn't mean we should uncritically praise the ad or its message. The stories Kaepernick tells during the two-minute spot are uncomplicated enough, at least as Nike renders them: Push yourself and you can achieve great things. But that's not Kaepernick's story. Kaepernick did achieve great things, setting a new record for combined rushing and passing numbers in college at the University of Nevada, leading the 49ers to within a few yards of a Super Bowl victory, and helping launch a new era of running quarterbacks in the NFL. He rose to the pinnacle of the most important position in the most popular sport in America, then was frozen out of the league for his political beliefs. (The NFL would no doubt object to that characterization, but when the likes of Chad Henne and Colt McCoy can find reliable work as backup QBs, it's hard to argue there's any talent-based reason Kaepernick isn't at least a second-stringer somewhere.)
Kaepernick's is not a story about defying the odds, even if his overcoming the awkwardness—and worse—that comes with being an adopted, mixed-race kid in mostly white social contexts is an inspiring one. His NFL career is a cautionary tale about how the (almost exclusively white) 1 percent can use their resources to silence and punish dissent. NFL owners leech off of taxpayers to build ridiculous stadiums that increase the value of their franchises. Unique among major American pro leagues, the NFL doesn't guarantee contracts, allowing teams to easily cut players when they suffer devastating injuries, which they do frequently. The league for years ignored—and still hasn't properly grappled with—the fact that the sport literally causes brain damage. And though conservatives complained about Kaepernick and other activist players bringing politics to the gridiron, the NFL has long been an explicitly right-wing institution that, for instance, received money from the government along with other sports leagues to spread what amounted to pro-military propaganda.
It's in that context that we should view the freezing out of Kaepernick and his former teammate Eric Reid, who similarly hasn't found work in the NFL. Their exclusion is just an extension of the league's longstanding practice of grinding as much profit as it can out of its players and tossing any aside who voice opinions that aren't simpatico with the ruling class's views. (Unsurprisingly, many owners are also major Trump supporters.)
It's genuinely inspiring to watch athletes overcome obstacles, whether that means setting new benchmarks, earning victories against superior competition, or refusing to accept the limitations of their bodies. That's what pulls at us when we watch Nike ads. The adversity Kaepernick has faced in the past two years is not the same: It was created by oligarchs who believed that his calls for a more just society were a headache they didn't want to tolerate. And overcoming that adversity requires a different set of tools than those on display in the Nike ad. Working harder, training more aggressively, digging deeper—those platitudes don't apply when you're facing off against your billionaire employers instead of an opposing team.
The Nike ad may make people feel good, which is what it was meant to do. It may make you feel inspired, even. But when we consider Kaepernick and what happened to him, we should feel something else—an emotion less useful to both corporations and the NFL, which is why it's all the more important to hang onto. We should feel angry.
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