Critical Discourse Analysis
The Man Who Sacrificed Everything
By Kyra Brue
“Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”(Nike)
These nine words carry a lot of weight for many people, especially for the face behind them, Colin Kaepernick. Between Nike’s decision to use Kaepernick as the face of this advertisement and the current relationship between Nike and the NFL, it appears as though this ad was deliberately created to gain a response – both good and bad – from its audience. By examining the ad’s verbs, objects, and clauses, I will look closely at how they reveal the statement’s foregrounded and backgrounded ideals, including how they play into Colin Kaepernick’s eviction from the NFL in 2016.
Looking at the verbs used in these two sentences, it’s easy to see that this message was created to be influential to all, weather it be in a negative or positive light. The first verb in this excerpt is believe. In this context, believe is a transitive verb because it has the potential to act upon an object, which in this case is something. The way that this verb is used makes it sound demanding or imperative. It appears that Nike wrote this to make it seem like Kaepernick is telling you to believe, as if there’s no other option. It also has a bit of a hopeful connotation within it. To “believe in something” (Nike) usually means to be optimistic about that something and, in this case, it appears as though Nike is wanting to spread the message that to “believe in something” (Nike) is the first step to achieving any goal, in sports or in life.
The second verb used in this ad is sacrificing. Sacrificing is also a transitive verb because the object that it is acting upon is everything. The pairing of sacrificing and everything, a gerund phrase, transforms sacrificing from a verb to a noun-like expression. The use of this word pairing seemed deliberate, because of the impact that the rhyming words have in this context. The writer, whoever they may be, could have easily used “give up” or something more dull, but they chose sacrificing. Sacrificing is a more intense word and you could argue that Nike likely chose this word above others because of the connection that it has to the face of this ad. Kaepernick sacrificed everything when he made the decision to silently protest during the national anthem. Nike most likely knew this, therefore, the use of these words were made to intentionally foreground Kaepernick’s actions, while simultaneously backgrounding the company’s pro-Kaepernick ideals.
Another verb, that is found in the second clause of Nike’s ad is means. This verb is different from the other verbs, in that it is a linking verb and not an action verb, like believe and sacrificing. Means is equating it with everything, with the word it standing in for the word something, so as not to be repetitive. This verb, like the other two, have a specific purpose for being in this passage. If it were to be taken out or replaced with one of its synonyms (implies, indicates, determines, or suggests) the message wouldn’t have the same meaning. By including means instead of another verb, it emphasizes the message as a whole by saying that “believing in something,” (Nike) even if it has the chance negatively alter your career is worth doing, “even if it means sacrificing everything.” (Nike) Nike is not only trying to promote a positive message to people, but by having Kaepernick as the face of their ad, they are foregrounding the fact that Kaepernick fearlessly sacrificed his career for something that he believed in.
Two of these verbs, believe and sacrificing, are presented in the active voice which gives the message a motivational tone. I argue that this was Nike’s intended purpose for this ad. These verbs allow for the message, as a whole, to foreground Colin Kaepernick’s own sacrifice that he made when he began kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality in America. His decision to stick with what he believed in, might’ve caused him to be exiled by the NFL, but he was willing to make that sacrifice no matter the consequences. Overall the verbs used in this piece don’t seem accidental. Believe, sacrificing, and means were some of the best verbs to use, in this case, because they not only played a part in generating a reaction from the public, but they also tied into Kaepernick’s own actions, and the outcome of those actions.
Previously, I briefly mentioned the objects, something and everything, being the “things” acted upon by their transitive verb counterparts. These objects, even though they’re broad, make the message of this ad better suited for a wider audience. Advertisements are usually made with the objective of reaching consumers and pulling them in so they will buy a product. Using something and everything gives the message a more general and attainable goal. If Nike had used more specific words, they would be outright choosing a side, and that could have been suicide for the company, whose number one goal is likely to make money. Since they used broader words like something and everything, their message was able to appeal to a larger audience. Even with Nike’s presentation of a broader message, you could also argue that the message still caused a bit of an uproar anyways. However, I believe that the uproar wasn’t necessarily caused by the linguistic features found throughout the message, but more so by the face and voice that relayed the message. If for example, Odell Beckham Jr., currently a more likeable player in the NFL, had been the face of this campaign, the message would have been perceived differently and people likely wouldn’t have been so quick to color over or burn all of their Nike products.
This message is presented in two sentences and two clauses. The use of two sentences, when the message could have easily been combined into one, is a unique choice. The two clauses are separated by a period, when grammatically speaking, they should be separated by a comma. However, it seems as though the person at Nike who wrote this, did this intentionally. The first clause, “believe in something,” (Nike) is an independent clause and can easily stand alone, but without the other clause the ad wouldn’t have had the same effect. The second clause, a dependent clause, stands alone and seemingly masks itself as an independent clause by ending itself with a period. It isn’t grammatically correct, but it seems like it was written this way in order to add emphasis to the message. I believe that the choice to use periods to end each of these clauses was a way for the sacrifices made by Colin Kaepernick, because of his beliefs, to be foregrounded. Independent clauses are usually the ones doing the foregrounding, while the dependent clauses do the backgrounding, but in this case I feel that by using this specific punctuation to end both clauses, they are both foregrounding what Kaepernick dealt with in 2016.
As formerly mentioned, this excerpt foregrounds Colin Kaepernick beliefs, even though they cost him his place in the NFL. Delving deeper into the foregrounding and backgrounding of the overall message, the “us” in this statement is arguably Kaepernick and the other players and citizens who have stood up – or kneeled – for what they believe in. The “them,” in this excerpt, I believe to be the NFL, pro-military, or the anti-kneeling American citizens, who don’t appreciate the athletes who have been kneeling during the national anthem. As seen in the news, the right leaning NFL, was one of the reasons for Kaepernick’s unfortunate exile from the league. Although there is no direct mention of the NFL in the ad, by using Kaepernick as the face of this campaign and by putting those specific words in front of him, the message is seemingly backgrounding the NFL’s attempted command that all players need to stand for the anthem or suffer the consequences.
Nike’s decision to use Kaepernick, paired with these words, in this advertisement is interesting, especially because of the long-standing partnership between Nike and the NFL. The ad’s message is encouraging people to do what they believe, no matter the consequences. By seemingly agreeing with Kaepernick’s ideals, this statement is used by Nike to almost give a middle finger to the NFL’s ideals. The statement is relayed to the audience in a way that could infuriate people who don’t agree with Kaepernick’s protests, which is a big risk for Nike to take. Nevertheless, it seems that Nike created this ad to elicit a response, not caring if it was positive or negative. When looking at the ad Kaepernick is staring down the barrel of the lens, looking at the reader, and saying this message – verbs, objects, clauses, and all – directly to the audience. This makes him look like he’s almost “daring” you to stand up – or kneel – for your beliefs, “even if it means sacrificing everything,” (Nike) which is exactly what he boldly did.
Nike. “Dream Crazy.” YouTube, narrated by Colin Kaepernick, 5 Sep. 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq2CvmgoO7I&t=8s