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There was once a star athlete by the Bay who lost his job. He did something many considered unforgivable and gave up millions of dollars in salary and endorsements during what should have been the prime of his career. Then a sneaker company took a risk, making him the centerpiece of a commercial that made everyone take notice.
The athlete? Latrell Sprewell, who one day in 1997 at practice with the Golden State Warriors took offense to something said by coach P.J. Carlesimo and choked him until bruises stood out on his neck. Initially suspended just 10 days, Sprewell would miss the remainder of the season—suspended without pay—and never play another game for the Warriors. He was traded to the Knicks, and signed with And1, which produced a commercial called “The American Dream.” Simple but audacious, it ruled pre-Twitter conversations. And that year, Sprewell helped lead the Knicks to the NBA Finals.
Colin Kaepernick may never receive the same second chance Sprewell did, which is maddening, considering that Kaepernick has never hurt anybody. Yet Nike has chosen to make him the centerpiece of its new campaign, a 30th-anniversary take on “Just Do It.” The print ad, a black-and-white shot of Kaep’s face overlaid by the text “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” was posted on Kaepernick’s Instagram on Monday. Seemingly everyone reposted it, as his face filled entire feeds, and by Wednesday night it had received over a million likes. The actual commercial, narrated by Kaepernick and set to air on TV for the first time tonight, during the NFL opener, was posted on Kaepernick’s Twitter on Wednesday. It got 320,000 likes in eight hours.
Was there backlash? Of course there was backlash. The same people who hated Kaepernick before hated him after, including a certain president of the United States. People cut the Nike logos off their socks and lit their shoes on fire, performative protests that hurt no one but themselves. (After you buy a company’s product, they don’t really care what you do with it—they’ve already gotten your money.) Others announced they’d never buy Nike products again. Somehow the brand will survive.
Still, this was more of a gamble for Nike than it was for Kaepernick. After all, the Nike ad is just amplifying what Kaepernick has been saying all along. By aligning themselves so publicly with Kaepernick (a Nike endorsee since he entered the NFL), the brand risks not only alienating a part of their consumer base, but the NFL itself, whose uniforms it makes. Nike recently extended their deal through 2028. For now it seems to be working out for both parties. The brief stock dip Nike experienced after Labor Day appeared to be an industry-wide blip, and the ads gave them millions of dollars’ worth of exposure. The hope is, of course, that fans will respond to Kaepernick gear like they did the ads. The only question will be whether that gear is made for an active NFL player.
Maybe Colin Kaepernick won’t get another chance as an NFL quarterback (He did reportedly get an offer to play for the Denver Broncos, but passed). Maybe that New Year’s Day 2017 loss to the Seahawks—one where he connected on 17 of 22 passes for 215 yards—will stand as his last game. Maybe his career as a professional athlete ended when he was 29.
But what if that didn’t matter? What if, by leading the 49ers to the Super Bowl, then choosing to kneel for something he believed in, he made himself bigger than a game? What if his name, his face, his huge Oscar Gamble Afro all stood for something else, something that mattered more than any NFL victory? What if, by sacrificing everything, he achieved the one thing he’d wished to achieve all along?
Maybe Colin Kaepernick won’t get another chance as an NFL quarterback. Maybe his ongoing collusion case against the NFL won’t come to anything, and maybe it will and he won’t get signed anyway. In professional sports, there’s always someone younger, someone hungrier—someone cheaper—just waiting to take your spot. And once you lose it, it’s just that much harder to earn it back. In professional sports, especially in the NFL, the ending always comes sooner than you want it to. Well, maybe unless you’re Tom Brady.
But what if that didn’t matter? Colin Kaepernick went into the next phase of his life eyes wide open, knowing full well the price he might have to pay. Athletes who’ve spoken out—Craig Hodges, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—have long been treated as pariahs. Breaking from norms has always been considered more unforgivable than breaking laws.
Nike’s decision to place Kaepernick front and center in this new campaign wasn’t just altruistic. It is a marketing company first and foremost, and in doing this it no doubt calculated the positives and negatives and came to the conclusion that more would be for than against. And maybe that’s the biggest success of all. Because while some still look at Colin Kaepernick as America’s worst nightmare, what if he’s actually the American dream?