There’s a reason you probably stopped for a second when you saw Nike’s new Colin Kaepernick ad, and it goes beyond the aesthetic of the ad or even the hook of finding him there:
Nike is the one brand in America we would not expect to soften no matter what Donald Trump does, the rarest of corporate qualities in this particular moment, and that’s why — even if you hate all of this — that is why everyone was like “damn!” when they saw the ad.
This could be a lot more complicated than that, if you wanted it to be: Though Nike has rolled out this ad campaign, they will also provide the NFL’s uniforms this season, and does that make this a more meaningful statement or a corporation hedging a bet? Though Nike will champion the cause of social justice, they will continue paying people very little to make sneakers in far-off countries, and if someone cares about that now, or cares about Nike now but might have cared about the economics before, shouldn’t that make a difference? Though Kaepernick has transcended the symbolic protest of police violence against black people to become a symbol himself, he is still getting paid for this, and is that a redeeming quality or a clear sign that he did not sacrifice “everything”?
Those kind of questions are all fine and good, but Nike is the capitalist god of destruction.
Their omnipresence subsumes, like the above, and co-opts everything from John Lennon to racial justice campaigns. Nike is so big and vast — 25 pairs of shoes per second sold — that the brand undercuts all other considerations. If you go find a group of teens on the street right now, they’re probably wearing one of only a few sneaker brands: the old-school, black-and-white Vans; white Adidas Superstars; Converse (owned by Nike); throwback Jordans (owned by Nike); or black Nikes with the white swoosh. It’s like breathing capitalism. The only question that really matters, and the only one that will tell us something about Nike, the NFL, and Trump is simple: Will Nike hold?
Because, traditionally, Nike works best when the vibe is all-encompassing domination. The colors are usually the same (stark black and white in matte, neon oranges and yellows, cool blues and grays), and the messaging is usually built around the idea of true exceptionalism, emerging from pain.
Michael Jordan basically remade the brand in his ruthless image, and if Nike occasionally goes through goofy periods (those stupid LeBron and Kobe puppets), it’s because what they do best — a relentlessness that borders on warfare — only fits certain moments and certain kinds of athletes.
Brian Phillips once described Nike’s (albeit incorrect) branding of the US Women’s Soccer team as “a kind of steel-gray emblem of hard work and determination,” an identity filled with “washed-out colors against a boxing-gym wall or a storm cloud or a vaguely ominous flag” and grimacing in the “dawn-workout fog.” And you don’t necessarily have to be the definitive all-time great to embody it: The early ’90s Charles Barkley “I Am Not a Role Model” campaign carries that intensity. “I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court,” Barkley says, directly to the camera, in black and white, the aesthetic predecessor to Nike’s latest campaign.
Nobody captures the combined effect — gritty egalitarian determination, and the Platonic greatness — better now than Serena Williams, who is all-time. And on East 23rd St. in Manhattan, there’s currently a 12-story mural of Williams, preparing to serve a tennis ball down Park Ave., captioned “Girls from Compton don’t just play tennis. They own it.” in the same black-and-white-and-serifs aesthetic, featuring the same slogan at the bottom: Just Do It.
When it works, it really works.
In 2008, for instance, they released the ultimate hype ad. Actually titled “Fate,” the David Fincher–directed ad traces the lives of ex–Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson and ex–Steelers safety Troy Polamalu over “The Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, except with a subtly added beat, from childhood to NFL, until they collide at midfield.
The end is slightly anticlimactic — they sort of good-naturedly walk away without either emerging as victor — but that’s fine, because it’s still objectively awesome, the peak of where athletic performance, where fate can take you. You’re lying to yourself if you don’t think this ad is awesome (search your heart). Would but you could have your own life cataloged this way!
Ten years later, they’re both out of football, and Nike has unveiled an ad campaign with the league’s essential iconoclast. And if the Kaepernick ad doesn’t exactly fit the singular athletic greatness aspect, it does fit within the singular, absolutist, carved-from-salt message that Nike has been pushing for decades.
This is why the ad is so striking, and eclipses all the normal considerations: We intuitively know that Nike never, ever, ever backs down. They are so corporate and so vast that every decision they make feels final. So, when you consider that understanding of Nike, isn’t this the firmest sign of NFL entering into decay and decline there’s ever been? When their own uniform maker has launched a marquee campaign with the player suing the NFL?
The league couldn’t be making more money, yes. But it’s being attacked by the economics of television, from the left (for the way they’ve handled player protest), from the right (for the way they’ve handled player protest), from the president himself (for the way they’ve handled player protest), and, at the center, there’s an inescapable darkness.
Throughout Mark Leibovich’s new book Big Game, the ghoulish results of an NFL career — memory loss, physical degeneration, grief — materialize on the edges, in discordant places. At parties, at the Hall of Fame, during Super Bowl week, in interviews, one scene will be taking place only for a man in his early sixties to inch past with a walker. He describes various people’s reactions to Concussion, the Will Smith movie about CTE: Gisele Bündchen told Tom Brady to retire. “Oh yeah, I cried through it,” former Steelers center Dermontti Dawson told him. And then there’s the league’s antiseptic, alien reaction to all of it:
“I would play baseball,” (Antwaan) Randle El said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. At only 36, Randle El said he has bouts of memory loss and struggles to walk downstairs. When I asked Goodell about stories like this, he played the “we’re generating awareness” card. “It is part of the conversation,” he told me. Players and former players, he said, now feel freer to “come forward” to discuss their medical and mental issues. In fact, we should view the Antwaan Randle Els as signifiers of progress.
And that, amid the billions and billions of dollars flowing among a very small group of people, from the work of people like Kaepernick, is the vise tightening around the NFL.