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Colin Kaepernick’s Nike ad raised his profile, but diluted his message

Kaepernick’s deal with Nike may do some good for social justice, but it also illustrates how dependent progress has become on brands.

As I watched Colin Kaepernick’s new advertisement with Nike, I kept thinking the words: “Say it.” The ad starts with Kaepernick assuring us “what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult; it’s a compliment.”

Good start, now: Say it.

“Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest, ever.”

OK, but say it.

“Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey; picture OBJ wearing yours.”

Sure, let’s dream big, I’m all for that ... but say the damn thing.

“Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker; do both.”

Oh, my goodness, just say why we’re here.

When Kaepernick was finally revealed as the narrator in the ad, he turned to the camera and stated the tagline that had been assigned to him, saying, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.”

At that point I realized the ad was never going to say the necessary thing. The “it” in question is what has made Kaepernick so divisive for the last few years. “It” is the reason why the NFL ostracized him, the President of the United States derided him, and people are burning their shoes and cutting out the swooshes in their shorts.

“It” is Kaepernick’s initially small and personal protest against racial injustice in the United States. Within that ad, that “something” he believes in was drowning in a sea of inspirational sports clichés.

We should rarely ever look to sports ads to say anything important. They deal in aesthetics and generalities on purpose to appeal to as many people as possible. But Kaepernick is unique, one of the few sports figures fighting for something so fragile and so far beyond sports that it needs protection.

How Nike addresses his protest of the brutality against black people and people of color in America matters. A demand for equal treatment is a radical action, and has to be specific and explicit to make an impact. Protest can’t just be “something” that one believes in. That’s why the ad campaign so quickly turned into a meme. Kaepernick’s line could apply to anyone, from Thanos to Slender Man.

Everyone who has a goal believes in “something,” but not everyone takes a knee because, as Kaepernick once so clearly stated:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

The ad confirmed the fear I had when Kaepernick’s most recent Nike deal was first announced. It illustrates the inherent conflict that exists between social justice and brands.

Social justice should challenge the fundamental world we live in, and be measured by change in human conditions. Those who promote social justice, like Kaepernick, are often made to be pariahs. They are stripped of their positions and ostracized. Despite what Nike suggests, they don’t mean to “sacrifice” anything.

In Kaepernick’s case, the career he worked hard for was taken from him. To say he “sacrificed” misunderstands the story and puts the blame for the consequences on him, rather than the people who wanted him gone. He was smeared because his stance against racial injustice forced people to confront an uncomfortable reality about their country.

That nuance gets lost when handled by brands, however. A brand aims to appeal broadly and measures itself in profit. Protest, however, is specific and provocative, and isn’t supposed to be an easy sell. Justice is about restoring dignity to people, and often requires systematic change through thoroughly unsexy and unmarketable processes.

The Nike ad shows that the company isn’t comfortable portraying Kaepernick in all his radicalism. It can’t show the disproportionate way that police officers kill black people and people of color in America, nor can it use its campaign to detail the long history of America’s racism and how it still infects every aspect of our daily lives. To do so wouldn’t be financially sensible for a sports apparel giant.

What Nike did instead is a similar campaign to how other brands co-opted the body positivity movement, which started as an effort by those whose bodies had been shunned and denigrated by popular culture to embrace and love those bodies. It, too, quickly became an empty selling point in which the onus for change was lost. From Racked:

Dove and its ad agency had picked up on something important in the positive response to its first ad: They didn’t need to take responsibility or propose a solution. While the logical continuation of that thought for anyone who doesn’t work at an ad agency would be that maybe brands should mind their business instead of dabbling in ineffective cultural criticism — that maybe they’re not the institutions we should be looking to on these topics at all — they saw an opportunity.

The cultural narrative about women’s bodies was so bad that simply identifying the problem would get Dove full credit and move plenty of product, but the urge to talk about a broad cultural problem while refusing to name a bad actor left the blame squarely on the shoulders of the women who had the temerity not to love themselves sufficiently.

No company has a duty to be a force for social justice, of course. At the same time, brands like Nike and Dove strive to present themselves as moral authorities. Brands are present in so many facets of our lives that morality has become a resource like everything else. The more of our lives we invest in brands, the better for them. And in this world, messages of self-help nonsense sell, and those more difficult, specific, and less marketable societal messages get washed out.

Kaepernick’s protest was such a big topic of conversation that it became inevitable someone would to try to sell it. Nike had been paying Kaepernick since 2011 — long before he began protesting — and in that time, they were rightly unsure on how to make a campaign out of his activism. When other brands offered to take that initiative, Nike renegotiated Kaepernick’s deal then presented his message in the safest terms they could.

And, yet, Kaepernick’s decision to side with Nike is easy to sympathize with. With Nike’s backing, his image will remain in the national spotlight. Since he began his protest, he has donated more than a million dollars to organizations that help oppressed people, and Nike’s money should help him do even more good in the world. Black people and people of color can also take heart that a big company is championing someone who cares about them. The economic nature of the deal is uncomfortable, but the symbolism is still inspiring.

But it’s a nakedly cynical deal. If Nike really supported Kaepernick’s message, it could start by reforming itself:

It is difficult to trust a corporation like Nike and understand its standards. The brand has been linked to numerous anti-sweatshop protests and their toxic treatment of women. Last year, Nike co-founder Phil Knight donated up to $500,000 to GOP entities. In 2016, Knight gave $330,000 to Republicans in Oregon and over $100,000 for Republicans nationally. The organization has headquarters in Donald Trump’s towers in New York, which California grassroots groups harangued them for.

Knowing the ethical problems that exist within the partnership, Kaepernick faces a conundrum: can the deal be a net benefit to his cause even while Nike actively dilutes it? His is a more pronounced version of the struggle that faces many who try to do good. In order to speak out about injustice, you need a platform, and brands have the means to provide one. The eternal hope for Kaepernick and others is they can create progress in the time they have, never mind their relationship with an entity that continues to go about its dirty business.

It’s a delicate balancing act for influential people that I’m not sure has ever been successful. The person and the brand are essentially using each other for opposing goals. One has been forced to sacrifice for trying to make bad things end, while the other wants to profit from the fact that bad things exist. And once Kaepernick’s celebrity wanes to the point that his message is no longer profitable, it’s hard to imagine Nike keeping him around, even if his fight goes on.

But more than anything, Kaepernick’s deal with Nike is frustrating for the fact that it may be necessary — in order to keep a message of justice alive one has to become partners with entities indifferent to justice’s success. Kaepernick by himself isn’t as big as the NFL, but Kaepernick with Nike behind him may be. And fighting for his livelihood while also continuing his work towards progress takes money.

Therein lies a sad truth to Kaepernick’s deal with Nike: That in the world today, alleviating the pain and suffering for a people sometimes means allowing a brand to profit from that pain.