Metro Detroit lawyer Martin Leaf is a man on a mission, who won’t give up, even though the odds of winning are slim at best. Leaf is locked in a legal battle with corporate powerhouse Nike, alleging its animated soccer video titled “The Last Game,” produced to promote the 2014 World Cup, contains anti-Semitic images and messages. He wants the Oregon-based sneaker giant to put a warning on the video noting that it contains hateful, anti-Semitic content.
“The deceptive promotion of hate has no place in a civilized society,” says Leaf of the video, which continues to attract views and comments on YouTube. Some readers of Jewish publications around the world have echoed Leaf’s concerns in comment sections over the years.
So far, he’s lost every round in federal court.
What makes his mission even more challenging is that the casual viewer would have to examine the film frame-by-frame, like a member of the Warren Commission poring over the Zapruder film, to notice most of what he claims.
Nike calls Leaf’s allegations of anti-Semitism unfounded and has refused to settle. To date, the video has gotten more than 161 million views on just one of multiple YouTube postings.
The film tells the story of a villain who creates a team of soccer-playing clones, who ruin soccer by winning games in a methodical, boring style that takes no risks, a court document explains. A group of international soccer stars unite to rescue the game from the clones.
Leaf says the anti-Semitism starts with the clone team’s logo, which resembles the Star of David. And he says the theme is all too familiar: “The Jews’ world dominance.” Nike says the logo is simply made up of soccer balls and has nothing to do with Judaism.
But here’s where the freeze-frame and magnifying glasses come in: Leaf also alleges that the video contains a graffiti drawing of stereotypical “big-nosed Jew” with a crown and the word “devil” scrawled next to it. He alleges that word “Nike” in the video is drawn on a wall and looks more like the word “Kike,” a Jewish slur. He goes on to say if Judaism was not on the animator’s mind, why is it that it also includes the Hebrew word “buzzard” scrawled on a streetcar.
Leaf says he’s also curious why the sports video contains hidden religious references. For example, he says the numbers 20:42:49 randomly appear on a computer board, which he says corresponds to the prophet Ezekiel, chapter 20, verse 42-49, who writes about the evil ways of the Jews who fled Egypt and about their migration to Israel.
There’s also the number 571 that randomly appears, which he says is the birth year of the prophet Muhammed. That number is accompanied by 4018, which Leaf says represents Quranic Suhra verse, 40:18 of Islam, which states that “the hearts will be choking the throats” of wrongdoers, and no one will help them.
“Why are there all these religious references in a Nike ad?” Leaf asks.
The Nike case has raised freedom of speech and First Amendment issues, and has tested the limits of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, under which Leaf to date has unsuccessfully argued the merits of his case.
Nike has denied the allegations, insisting Leaf’s claims are simply his interpretations, and wrong ones at that. The lead animator, Conor Ryan of Dublin, Ireland also told Deadline Detroit Leaf’s claims are nonsense.
“That’s obviously ridiculous and all you'd have to do is watch the film to know it's not true!” he wrote in an email via Linkedin. In follow-up questions, he writes: “I'm not going to take any of that seriously enough to respond, sorry.”
Leaf counters by asking why Ryan posted an Instagram photo of himself a few years ago with a Hitler mustache. It has since been deleted.
When asked if he cared to comment on the photo, he wrote: “No, I don’t!”
Leaf says he and a former Secret Service agent trained in hate speech and propaganda have exhaustively examined the five-minute video, frame by frame.
Leaf says such close examination is a common practice among younger people, who look for so-called Easter eggs, i.e. hidden, subliminal messages.
Leaf says he first learned of the video from a 2014 story in the Times of Israel, which reported that some saw it as anti-Semitic. After corresponding with Nike, and getting no response, Leaf says he took it to the next level.
In June 2020, he filed a lawsuit against Nike in U.S. District Court in Detroit. The judge dismissed the case before it went to trial, and late last year the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld that ruling. Leaf last Friday filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and this week created a website arguing his position.
The First Amendment gives wide latitude in expression, particularly in the arts and literature. So, in his legal arguments, Leaf took a unique approach, claiming in court papers that the video violated the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, which protects consumers of leased goods or services against deception. Leaf argues that Nike’s video amounts to deceiving consumers, even if they aren’t buying the company’s products.
In a motion, Leaf claimed the Nike film was “engineered to leverage racial Jew-hatred to make more money in a sneaky subliminal way without ‘getting caught.’”
The Star of David reflects “the main theme of Nike's ads that Jews are taking over the world. They could have left it as a soccer ball, but they had to show how The Perfect Corporation was ruining everything for everyone.”
He said he’s not alone in his interpretation.
Quranic Suhra verse.
In 2014, AISH, an orthodox Jewish education organization, which promotes itself as inspiring people to live more thoughtful and impactful lives, ran a story about the video, with the headline: “Is This Nike Video ‘Anti-Semitic.”
One reader commented, “that emblem on the “clones” looks exactly like the (Star of David) from a distance. It is also no coincidence that a popular belief currently making a huge comeback on the Internet is that the Jews are some kind of ‘hybrid” put in place to control the world.”
In 2014, Tablet magazine, published “Are Nike’s Soulless Soccer Robots Jewish?” The story quoted a letter to Nike written by Yaakov Hagoel, the then-head of the World Zionist Organization’s Department for Countering Antisemitism: “We would love to work with you at Nike to understand what’s the real meaning behind these symbols and solve the problem. We in the Department for Countering Antisemitism take very seriously the complaints we have received, and we will act resolutely to verify the facts in full.”
In Metro Detroit, Rabbi Jason Miller tweeted after the 2014 video was released: “Overt anti-Semitism in the Nike ad before the #WorldCup. Crazy, right? “
Today, he explains: “When I tweeted about this several years ago, I didn't call it out for being anti-Semitic. Rather, I raised the question because the uniforms of the players appear to have Jewish stars on them. They seem too close to be Jewish stars for Nike to have not noticed.”
The Court of Appeals last October rejected Leaf’s argument about the ad violating the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, saying “Leaf does not allege that he ever even contemplated buying Nike products…he treats the Nike ad itself as a ‘product’ and his viewing of this freely available commercial as the ‘transaction.’ This reading would effectively transform the Michigan Consumer Protection Act from a narrow regulation of consumer transactions into a broad regulation of internet speech. Because the Act does not reach so far, we affirm the district court’s dismissal of Leaf’s complaint.”
The ruling goes on to say there was nothing in the video that would result in a customer being defrauded in a purchase.
Leaf is angry about the court rulings, saying the local federal judge dismissed the case at the pre-trial stage and the Court of Appeals addressed new issues in its opinion, saying free products are not covered on the Internet by the Michigan Consumer Protection Act.
“That makes the Consumer Protection Act toothless,” he said.
Lawyers for Nike pushed back on several fronts in court filings. Its lawyers write that “Nike strongly denies all the allegations of anti-Semitic messages in ‘The Last Game.” The lawyers went on to accuse Leaf of asking the court to censor the film under the Michigan Consumer Protection Act “based on his unique, unfounded, unsubstantiated, highly idiosyncratic, and very personal opinion regarding it.”
“Although Nike vigorously disputes and denies the Plaintiff’s characterization of the Film as anti-Semitic, even distasteful and highly offensive speech is protected by the First Amendment.”
Thomas M. Schehr of Dykema Gossett law firm in Detroit, who has represented Nike, declined to respond after being contacted by phone and emails. Nike also did not respond for comment.
Leaf says he’s puzzled why Nike won’t budge, particularly since it prides itself on having a no-tolerance policy for hatred. Nike simply says in court pleadings that Leaf has misinterpreted the video.
"It's never too late for Nike to act in accordance with the statement's regarding their absolute intolerance for hate and bigorty," Leaf says.
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