Nike’s new deal with Kaepernick last week says more about American racial politics than about football. By making a statement with his quiet gesture, Kaepernick not only became a leader; he also became a statement himself. His athletic brand represents less his prowess on the field than the civic courage that ultimately keeps him off the field. He has become heir to a tradition of globally visible African American activists that developed along with the international growth of professional sports.
By featuring Kaepernick in the 30th-anniversary campaign of the iconic “Just Do It” slogan, Nike is weaving together — and capitalizing upon — two strands of history that made the company’s bold gamble possible: the professionalization and globalization of sports over the past century and the international reach of black American activism by athletes and artists alike.
The roots of international sport lie in the other type of football — soccer. In 1863, a group of English gentlemen met at a pub to ban handling the ball in the game of football, dividing rugby from the new sport that would follow the rules set by the Football Association they then formed. The sport swiftly became the world’s most popular, partly because many cultures had developed foot sports before soccer’s introduction, partly because it required little equipment and was easy to learn, and partly because the sun never set on the British Empire in those days.
Everywhere busy British ships docked, soccer fields sprang up, locals joined in, and by the end of the 19th century clubs formed that slowly professionalized the sport. These clubs then produced the stars who formed the backbones of national teams that played for the World Cup, first hosted by Uruguay in 1930. The international tournament, always yoked to a cosmopolitan ideal of human brotherhood, also reinforced nationalism and long tolerated segregation.
In the United States, professional soccer flourished in the early 20th century. The many diverse European immigrants in Northeastern cities formed leagues and clubs. Manual laborers by day, the best players performed before tens of thousands at night in the American Soccer League (ASL). Then in 1924, the anti-immigration National Origins Act severely restricted new arrivals, changing American cities. Combined with the onset of the Great Depression, this nativism killed the ASL, which folded in 1933.
After World War II, American football, not soccer, flourished in the United States. Universities swelled with veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill. These institutions subsidized football programs that then fed the young National Football League, founded in the 1920s.
The problem: These institutions and programs routinely excluded black Americans. Universities so often refused to admit black students that the GI bill functioned as white affirmative action; black servicemen struggled to get their legal benefits, while white servicemen got tickets to the middle class.
This bigotry helped shaped the development of American football. Black athletes played football in their own over-enrolled colleges, but the NFL excluded them from 1934 to 1946. Over the next few decades, football became a huge American pastime — and business.
But the all-American ideal behind football — the same one embodied by the GI Bill — was coded white, so while the sport included more African American players over time and even made some of them stars, few were quarterbacks. Social critics noted that the game carried a whiff of the plantation.
Outside the United States, global football followed the pathways of empire, promoting an ideal of inclusivity with its diverse teams and talents and learning how valuable that image could be. International soccer stars such as Alfredo Di Stéfano of Argentina, Pelé of Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer of Germany drew global audiences and won sponsorships and fame. Beckenbauer sported a tracksuit from the German company Adidas in 1967, the shoe company’s first piece of apparel, which it still sells today. Pelé has endorsed many products, graced a line of Pumas with his name and even allowed Annie Leibovitz to photograph his feet in 1981. Companies fastened themselves to professional athletes’ brands, which clubs and countries also used to sell their own brands.
While Adidas became a global company because of soccer — its logo adorning even the balls for the World Cup, stylized for television appeal, since 1970, — the American company Nike seemed oblivious to the international market. That changed with Michael Jordan. When Nike started making Air Jordans in 1984, the basketball star’s international celebrity helped Nike become a multinational corporation. They followed the lead of Adidas and moved into every athletic niche, including soccer.
The Kaepernick contract reflects this transition. Kaepernick's protests, more than his play on the field, transformed him into a global icon. Kaepernick’s brand builds on the raised fists of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in the 1968 Olympics as well as the conscientious objection of Muhammad Ali to the Vietnam War.
Nike is confident of Kaepernick’s appeal not only to American consumers who agree with his protest but also to an audience abroad that knows him more for his political voice than for his throwing arm. Musa Okwonga, an artist and intellectual based in Berlin who has published multiple works on soccer, is impressed by Kaepernick because of “his resilience and his careful, relentless focus on the key tenets of Black Lives Matter.” He sees the Nike decision as the brand claiming to be “progressive” and willing “to change the status quo.”
The status quo Nike is using Kaepernick to challenge is President Trump’s America — those who hate uppity athletes, fear immigrants, disdain protests and despise liberal elites who are so cosmopolitan that if they do not love soccer already, they sort of wish they did. People attracted to the all-American image that drove the popularity of American football are the ones enraged by the ad campaign — and the only ones, Nike is wagering.
In the 90-second spot Nike is airing during NFL games this weekend, Nike shows that their Kaepernick is more connected to the inclusive ideals of global football than the parochial identities of American football. Kaepernick is preceded and surrounded by a cascade of diverse athletes, most of them obscure. Skateboarders who crash alone and try again, legless wrestlers of astonishing power, a hijab-wearing boxer, a wheelchair-bound basketball player with a killer game face, Nike showcases a global pantheon of dramatically diverse heroic strivers under words Kaepernick speaks with slow relish at the end: “Don’t ask if your dreams are crazy. Ask if they’re crazy enough.”
The craziest dream, Nike seems to be saying, is actually including everyone and treating them with dignity, while insisting on respect. The new campaign centering on Kaepernick gets its meaning from the people and plots Nike is arraying around him. LeBron James, arguably the world’s best at his sport right now, wears a suit in the ad as he opens his Promise School, more a great citizen than a great athlete. In another ad, Serena Williams is a kid from Compton whose dad teaches her to visualize herself at the U.S. Open. Another spot, also part of the “Just Do It” launch, features Latinas expert in multiple sports taming chaos in a street scene. And in a whimsical ad for a soccer cleat — or is it a football boot? — a famous male Brazilian morphs into a famous male Belgian who morphs into successive international stars, the last of whom is a woman, Mal Pugh, a young member of the U.S. National Team who cuts around defenders with all the strength and authority of the men.
With Kaepernick and company, Nike is making a statement about accepting people and giving them chances regardless of where they come from or what they look like. Whether shrewd or idealistic, Nike is betting on the culture of global football and its inclusive ideal. And it is betting against Trump.