Colin Kaepernick’s status as a global cultural icon of resistance has never seemed more secure. After two years of being seen as a symbol of radical dissent, and after one season of being shut out of the National Football League for daring to use the national anthem as a vehicle to protest police violence and racial inequity, he has re-emerged with an explosive impact, as the face — and voice — of the 30th anniversary of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign.
Black-and-white billboards show his face and the simple slogan, “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” in Times Square and San Francisco’s Union Square. A slickly produced TV ad uses the quarterback’s voice, speaking over a series of inspirational images of athletic achievement, ending with him saying the same phrase.
A video of the ad went viral as soon as it dropped, producing an incalculable amount of free advertising for Nike and proving that in our social media landscape, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference.
Every post of someone rejoicing over the campaign, saying he would buy more Nike gear to show support, or burning sneakers because he doesn’t like Kaepernick, only further cements his in-your-face legend and implants in people’s minds the ubiquitous swoosh.
The campaign is genius when it comes to commerce, but commodifying rebellion contains pitfalls about which Kaepernick and his legions of admirers should be aware.
The corporation projecting Kaepernick’s voice has a decadeslong record of taking rebel athletes, marketing their appeal but stripping their rebellion of all content.
In the 1980s, Nike took a young filmmaker named Spike Lee and used his prowess to project Michael Jordan’s new line of Air Jordan sneakers. Nike told us that John McEnroe was a Rebel With a Cause, without ever telling us exactly what that cause happened to be. Nike gave us Tiger Woods as some kind of political trailblazer, even though the actual Tiger Woods wanted no part of the political responsibility that came with his brand.
When you watch Kaepernick’s Nike commercial, hear his voice and words, it is bracing. He has said so little recently, beyond the occasional tweet, even as President Trump and his minions used the Kaepernick protest — NFL players kneeling when “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung on game days — as a punching bag.
But now we are hearing him through Nike’s corporate messaging, expressing words someone wrote — was it Kaepernick? — about believing in yourself, pursuing a passion. That’s a beautiful message but not altogether different from what any athlete might say.
Nike is appealing to a restive, even radical youth market far more likely to see such athletes as LeBron James, Serena Williams and Kaepernick as heroes than villains. Nike calculates that it doesn’t need older football fans who think Kaepernick is un-American.
In addition to delivering a stirring message, Nike is using the man and the voice, his charitable giving and admirable works as a fig leaf for its own malfeasance.
None of this is to criticize Kaepernick for taking Nike’s money. He has every right to earn a living.
Nike’s co-opting of Kaepernick’s “resistance” may broaden its appeal, but his testimony shouldn’t be lost in a sea of commerce. Otherwise, the message will be strangled by the same swoosh bringing Kaepernick’s voice back to life.
Dave Zirin is sports editor of the Nation. His latest book, with Michael Bennett, is “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable.” Tribune News Service distributes his column.