This documentary-style spot tells Nike’s story of how it signed its first ever disabled athlete. At the four second mark, Nike describes Justin Gallegos, a runner at Oregon State, as someone who suffers from Cerebral Palsy. This ad launched and went viral on World Cerebral Palsy Day. Their usage of the word ‘suffers’ demonstrates how charities or brand initiatives tend to position disabled bodies as a tragedy so that they can either raise money or bolster their bottom line. We have yet to encounter someone with Cerebral Palsy who feels empowered by Nike’s word choice of ‘suffers’ on World Cerebral Palsy Day, let alone on any other day.
As the ad progresses, the viewer learns that Nike is going to surprise Justin at the finish line of his race with a professional contract. The entire narrative is preposterous, simply for the fact that the NCAA requires all student-athletes be amateurs in their sport. Student athletes lose eligibility if they are paid in any way. Especially by the largest sporting brand in the world. At the end of the ad, a man from behind the camera says “In our eyes, you’re just a Nike athlete”. But if Justin was just a Nike athlete, Nike would have waited until he graduated to make an offer. And perhaps this is the point. Nike didn’t make Justin an offer. They surprised him.
We have yet to encounter an instance of a sports apparel company or team surprising an athlete with a professional contract as a gift. If you Google ‘signing day’ you will see image after image of athletes seated at tables in front of contracts, pen in hand, treated as professionals, because that’s what this is. A professional contract. The mere fact that Nike felt they needed to market the signing of this particular athlete as a ‘surprise’ or ‘gift’ rather than a commitment tells us that they don’t see Justin as a valuable signee. Nike views their charitable gesture as a brand enhancer. And that’s a terrible message to send to disabled people.
But if you really watch this ad, you’ll realize disabled people weren’t the intended audience. Everyone else was. They were simply using us to inspire you. We are nothing more than a brand enhancer. If you really watch this ad, you’ll discover that Justin wasn’t mic’d. Nike wasn’t interested in what he had to say, they just wanted his gratitude. Given the build-up and the gesture, how could Justin have possibly asked even a logistical question, such as ‘what are the terms of the contract’? Or Will I lose my eligibility to run at Oregon State’?
So we ask Nike, what would happen if you stopped trying to surprise us and started letting us surprise you?