When you see the melted flip-flops
Photo: Elsa (Getty Images)

“Calling a dream crazy is not an insult,” Colin Kaepernick says during a two-minute ad that Nike rolled out last Wednesday. “It’s a compliment.” It’s one of many perfectly circular blobules of aspiration that Kaepernick delivers in stop-and-go voiceover throughout the ad, and in that context and the broader context of Nike commercials, it doesn’t mean much. In the abbreviated version of the commercial that aired during Thursday Night Football, much of the shortening came as the result of trimming various inspirational examples of a few of their component improbabilities—you can probably do the edit yourself on: “If you’re born a refugee–don’t let it stop you from playing soccer–for the national team–at age 16.”

For an ad campaign that has stirred so much stupid and superheated controversy—nearly a week in it still has grown men sawing the tops off their socks and seething boomers slapping masking tape on their sneakers—what’s most striking about the thing itself is how modular it is. Any number of athletes and the things they’ve accomplished and expectations they’ve defied could have slotted into its miniature montages and lorem ipsum inspirational copy. Any athlete could have stepped into Kaepernick’s part without the need for significant alterations to the script, although that replacement star would presumably not have been styled to look quite as much like Huey Newton. The sentiments expressed, which are mostly about how important it is to be successful and also to want to be successful, are pure aspirational dada; if the break room at the facility where they print Successories posters had a fridge with those little poetry magnets on it, the fridge would read more or less like this ad. Every specific thing about it could be changed without altering the broader whole at all. But that would have defeated the purpose of the ad, which is to exist where people can react to it.

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Simply by existing around the man who was exiled from the NFL because of his public protest over how unrelentingly violent and unjust contemporary America is to its most vulnerable and least powerful citizens, the ad did what it was supposed to do. From Nike’s perspective, this has a little bit to do with extruding those Nike-branded motivation pellets—“Lose 120 pounds and become an iron man–after beating a brain tumor”—and much more to do with Kaepernick. Not Kaepernick the athlete, who is at this point a dead letter for a number of stupid reasons, and not the social activist that Kaepernick now seems content to be, either. It’s the brand that took the man’s place—the implied attributes that stand in for Kaepernick himself, the abstracted symbol that leads men to mutilate their socks and swirly-eyed ex–Pussycat Dolls to drive into the desert and proudly if a little skittishly immolate their sneakers while a friend films them.

Kaepernick the actual person is still doing what he does, in public and generally without much in the way of media pickup; when I watched it the other day I was the 57th view on the YouTube video that Kaepernick and Michael Bourn made explaining their joint donation as part of the redux of Kaepernick’s 10 For 10 campaign, which went up back in February. While it seems like Kaepernick is happy to make philanthropy his job in the absence of any NFL opportunities, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson reported last week that Nike “definitely has big plans for Kaepernick, which one insider told Yahoo Sports includes a line built around him encompassing shoes, shirts, jerseys and other apparel.” Because a bunch of scaredy-cat golf creatures boned him out of the career he’d earned, Kaepernick will play the last card available to every public American and become a lifestyle brand.

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“It’s the most controversial move [with an endorser] that Nike has ever made—especially if you’re going to craft something substantial around him,” an anonymous shoe-industry executive told Robinson. “I can’t think of anyone in the history of Nike that would come close... [He] could be the most powerful social persona that Nike ever signs. Not necessarily the most lucrative, but just the most powerful in terms of moving the social needle.” That looks like a major statement until you realize that Sneaker Insider is just saying that Kaepernick is someone who makes a certain type of person hack up his socks or incinerate her sneakers and try to go viral off it.


Nike isn’t about shit, which is something you already know. They are not trying to advance anything that Kaepernick works for or advocates or believes, although some of what they pay him will go to advance all that. Nike is just doing what brands do when they hire a famous person to appear in their ads, which is to graft what that person represents onto the brand. Kaepernick stands for and knelt in protest of specific things and to draw attention to specific injustices. His cause and his critique have never been especially difficult to understand, although they were swiftly cynically instrumentalized and willfully misinterpreted and preemptively dismissed by people whose jobs it is to do that.

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Two years later, what this was once about has disappeared into grievance and meme. The hair-trigger goblins that instantly responded to Kaepernick’s campaign were responding not to anything he’s said or done since beginning his protest—Kaepernick has, of late, steadfastly avoided saying anything at all—but to the brand that has taken his place. They are mad because they have been told that he is insufficiently respectful of one or more segment of our nation’s burgeoning Troop Community, or because they know that he makes our damp and grumpy president mad, or because they think Kaepernick is emblematic of and supported by a type of person that they don’t like. Some percentage of these angry people are angry because Kaepernick was once photographed at a 49ers practice wearing socks with images of a little cartoon pig wearing a policeman’s hat on them.

The advertising campaign itself, being an advertising campaign, cannot and does not do much more than gesture towards this. What Kaepernick represents, for Nike’s purposes and in Nike’s campaign, are Courage and Defiance. Nike likes words like this, which are big and actionable and generally held in high regard, but when put to a more stringent use they are inconveniently context-dependent. There are an infinite number of things in this world to defy or be defiant about, but not all of them or even all that many of them are worthy. The justness of Kaepernick’s cause redeems his dedication, but Nike does not sell and so in a basic sense cannot care about causes. It sells, and as a result cares very much about, specific and fundamentally blank virtues: ambition, confidence, dominance. The fulfillment that Nike sells people is individuated, and drawing a contrast to Kaepernick’s greater and more community-minded goals would make the brand’s self-centered single-mindedness look as crude and silly as it actually is—some people dream of winning five Super Bowls, some other people dream of ending the brutal predations of the carceral state, the thing is to go for it.

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But there is a reason that Kaepernick flambéeing his career because he would not stop asserting that all humans deserve equal treatment under the law and should be afforded equal dignity is admirable, and it happens to be the same reason that Curt Schilling tanking his career because he couldn’t stop posting oafish memes about how much he dislikes trans people isn’t admirable. Defiance and even bravery are value neutral on their own. Even the reactionary goblins who have spent years refusing to understand Kaepernick’s cause can grasp this, although because these people are total rancid dopes they’ve mostly expressed that point by whinging “would Nike tell Hitler to dream big?” on Twitter.

For all the wild talk in this Nike ad and others about demanding world-bestriding dominance and nothing less, Nike surely understands that they are selling the feeling of success much more than success itself. This is not just because the former is cheaper and easier to acquire. Nike’s aspirational mad lib shit—“Don’t just settle for winning a Cy Young Award–travel back in time and kick Osama Bin Laden–down a long flight of stairs”—is the easy part, and every bit as much Nike’s stock in trade as sneakers and dri-fit undershirts. It is not a truth that Nike’s worldview openly admits, but you do not need to dominate the world—to aspire not to wear Odell Beckham’s jersey, as another one of the dippy koans that Kaepernick delivers has it, but to have Odell Beckham, wearing yours—to feel positively about yourself. Most people don’t run marathons because they are actually trying to win the race, and a great many of those other finishers will run in Nikes. They’ll run to prove some private thing to themselves, or because it’s the type of exercise that makes them feel good, or because they have that perverse runner-brain thing that makes it all somehow seem fun to them. They will not need to be good at it to feel good about it. This is why most people exercise.

There’s no reason why any of this mundane human stuff needs to be wrapped up in all that thundering Manichean dumbassery—don’t lose, win; don’t just win, win everything. But also thundering Manichean dumbassery is both Nike’s thing and our culture’s uniquely pathological way of talking to itself. The dominance of these sorts of overdetermined good-versus-evil binaries does not really seem to reflect anything healthy in the culture, but also our culture is not healthy. You have already read about people recording themselves burning shoes and vandalizing socks because they thought it might enrage people they believe are their enemies, so you already know as much.

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All this furious and signifying back-and-forth binging and purging—Nike’s online sales spiked 31 percent after the ad; a small but observable percentage of consumers suddenly decided they really didn’t like the brand anymore—seems merely just politicized but also almost a sort of proxy politics, or what comes after politics. People now vote by rejecting insufficiently cop-respecting sneakers and consuming the official chicken sandwiches of traditional marriage, or vice versa; they put it online to signal to their allies and infuriate their enemies; they wake up the next day and do it again.

There’s an important distinction between stuff like this—stuff that looks and feels and sucks just like politics but which contains none of the actual struggle or meaning or potential—and actual politics as we all live it, and as it changes our lives in turn. Both are messy and loud, but only one means anything or could ever matter at all. You don’t need me to explain the difference to you any more than you need a brand to tell you how to dream.