Just Erase It

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick campaign ignores the specifics of his revolutionary message.

Colin Kaepernick in his new Nike ad.
Colin Kaepernick in his new Nike ad.

Nike’s Colin Kaepernick ads are already paying off. In the days since the company launched its new campaign starring the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, Nike’s online sales rose 31 percent, nearly twice the post–Labor Day spike the company saw last year.

This week, progressives who see Kaepernick as a civil rights hero have been eager to praise Nike for daring to alienate potential customers who see the former NFL player as an America-hating, anthem-disrespecting miscreant. These plaudits from the left have been shored up by reports that right-wingers are burning Nike products, and by conservatives on Twitter and Instagram who’ve been reworking Nike’s Kaepernick promo so it features the likes of Donald Trump. But it looks like the suspicion that Nike’s embrace of Kaepernick could be bad for business was overblown. At least so far, the campaign has inspired more people to buy new Nike gear than to take their business elsewhere.

The Nike sales data goes through Tuesday, when all that had gone live was a still image that overlays Kaepernick’s face with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.” If you watch the corresponding commercial the company released on Wednesday, it’s clear that Nike is playing it as safe as possible with its supposedly risky move.

The ad’s overarching message is that everyone should dream big and try to be the very best athlete there ever was, even if personal or structural obstacles stand in the way. It functions as a greatest-hits reel of sports stars, including Serena Williams, Megan Rapinoe, and LeBron James, all three of whom have come out in support of Kaepernick. The video also features several athletes who’ve overcome disabilities and prejudice: Isaiah Bird, a 10-year-old wrestler born with no legs; Shaquem Griffin, a Seattle Seahawks linebacker whose left hand was amputated when he was a child; Alicia Woollcott, a teenager who managed to become both a star linebacker and the homecoming queen at her school; and Alphonso Davies, who was born in a Ghanaian refugee camp and ended up joining the Canadian men’s national soccer team at 16 years old.

One athlete who doesn’t appear in this collage of rapid-fire clips is Kaepernick himself. The quarterback, who hasn’t played in an NFL game since January 2017 after being blacklisted by the league, appears only as a narrator ambling down city streets in a black turtleneck and camel coat. There’s no footage of him on the field, nothing that depicts his protests or their consequences, and not a single allusion to the police brutality and racism that prompted them. The radical statement that Nike hinted at in that initial ad never gets fleshed out. The brand gets close enough to Kaepernick to draft off his stardom but stays far enough away to avoid any explicit association with his message.

The skittishness with which Nike deploys the “Believe in something” message isn’t the only thing that’s galling about the two-minute video. By conflating the challenges posed by missing limbs, poverty, gender norms in athletics, state-sanctioned racist violence, and opponents on the field, Nike flattens the specifics of all of these obstacles. Instead, the company presents them as equivalent character-building challenges, suggesting that all it takes to triumph over any of them is hard work and the will to dream.

This is standard stuff for a sportswear commercial. But when this look-out-for-No.-1 logic is applied to the kinds of structural injustices Nike is trying to convert into profit—in addition to Kaepernick, Williams, Rapinoe, and James, there’s also Zeina Nassar, a Muslim boxer who wears a Nike-branded hijab—it all falls apart. Institutional inequities cannot be mitigated by one spectacular achiever, and spectacular achievers are often held up to disprove the existence of institutional inequities (see: all the right-wingers dismissing Kaepernick’s anti-racist message because he’s rich and famous). The efficacy of social movements like Kaepernick’s rests in collective action and organizing, not one person being really fucking good at protesting and boycotting. Mixing the rhetoric of high-level individual sports with themes of social justice evinces a misunderstanding of both.

Kaepernick, who has an ongoing collusion grievance against the NFL, has forced conversations about police brutality into the sorts of sports-news outlets and sports-obsessed households that might not otherwise broach such a polarizing topic. At least thus far, Nike isn’t doing the same.

If the shoe company was sneaking Kaepernick’s revolutionary message into these ads like parents hiding puréed cauliflower in mac ’n’ cheese, I might be inclined to support the campaign. But the commercial doesn’t just dilute Kaepernick’s message—it erases it. The only nod to his actual protest, the slogan “Believe in something,” could apply just as well to the #BlueLivesMatter contingent trying to get him expelled from pro football for good.

Praising Nike for taking a risk by standing up for racial equality “even if it means sacrificing everything” doesn’t make sense, either. In addition to the boost in sales Nike has seen this week—an effect the company surely predicted and mapped out before giving the ads the green light—Nike mentions on social media rose 1,678 percent during the first two days of the campaign. You can’t buy that kind of grassroots brand buzz.

Yes, polls have reliably shown that a majority of Americans don’t support protests during the national anthem, but Nike isn’t trying to sell sportswear to a majority of Americans, and it’s certainly not targeting its ads at racist Uncle Joe in Dallas or Duluth. (He’s probably wearing New Balances, anyway.) Its largest consumer base is young, urban, middle- to high-income people, whose politics track much closer to Kaepernick’s than Trump’s. One recent poll found that only 38 percent of people under 30 disapprove of kneeling during the national anthem, compared to 63 percent of people 50 or older. Unsurprisingly, people of color and those who identify as Democrats are overwhelmingly supportive of Kaepernick, too, and have bought his merchandise in huge numbers despite his absence from the field.

Nike profiting off Kaepernick’s protest isn’t a bad thing on its own. Kaepernick is making money off the deal too, and it’s heartening to see the quarterback—who has made highly publicized donations to worthy causes—get a financial lifeline after losing out on the NFL’s money. And when one of the world’s most-recognized brands makes a statement about which values are worth praising and which are worth protesting, it helps normalize anti-racist beliefs and marginalize racist ones that have re-emerged in some spheres as worthy of public debate.

But Kaepernick hasn’t just started a conversation. He’s also backed up his on-the-field actions with substance, speaking clearly about the shameful state of mass incarceration, militarized policing, and everyday racism in the U.S. Nike has done nothing of the sort. The ad campaign’s connection to Kaepernick has everything to do with his fame and nothing to do with his ideology. It’s no surprise, then, that the commercial fails to make a coherent statement about belief, sacrifice, and struggle. It isn’t meant to sell a political message. It’s meant to sell shoes.