What does winning a professional sports championship mean in a year when everyone across the country—and the Black community, in particular—has lost so much?
Nike and Wieden + Kennedy attempt to tackle that thorny question in a 60-second commercial congratulating the Los Angeles Lakers for capturing their 17th NBA title on Sunday night with a Game 6 victory over the Miami Heat.
"This season, we won. But we lost. But we won. But we lost so much," the voiceover begins—over footage of clips from the Lakers' up-and-down season, as well as images of LeBron James and teammates wearing Black Mamba jerseys, in honor of Kobe Bryant, and Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
The spot is interesting for its attempt to acknowledge the social issues of the day while still striving for the kind of simple, feel-good message that normally comes with winning a sports championship. On its surface, this makes sense. In difficult times, it's certainly nice for the Lakers and their fans to enjoy another title.
On the other hand, the ad doesn't completely work, because how could it?
Black athletes across professional sports, particularly in the NBA, have struggled for years with the meaning of athletic competition against the backdrop of racism and entrenched social injustice in America. This dissonance reached new levels during this summer of unrest. To its credit, the ad attempts to address it. But it's a difficult, perhaps impossible, task to accomplish in one minute of airtime.
The fact is, winning and losing in sports doesn't compare to "winning" and "losing" in the battle against racism. This relative meaningless is why the NBA halted play for three days, and could have lost the playoffs altogether, after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin. Yet Nike can't resist trying to pump up the meaning of the Lakers' victory. Indeed, social posts declare, "In a year unlike anything, this win means everything." That's a nice turn of phrase, but it's obviously not the case. Sports are a welcome distraction from the real issues of the world, and athletes can amplify social causes. But winning on the court clearly no longer means everything, if it ever did.
The voiceover in the spot itself phrases it differently, saying, "In a year when we lost so much, this win means so much more." That's a more reasonable way to put it.
It's interesting to compare this ad with Nike's 2016 spot saluting James's last championship, with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Winning felt more sweetly uncomplicated back then—even though America was only four months away from a Trump presidency, and all the tragic backsliding that came with it.
Sports narratives aren't that simple anyone. With athletes themselves reframing what winning means against the backdrop of injustice, it's harder to thread the needle with purely feel-good messaging. Great storytellers like Nike will have to grapple with this going forward—even in something as usually straightforward as a congrats ad.