New York Giants star Odell Beckham Jr., after having signed the most lucrative shoe deal in the history of the NFL, promoted the release of his new Nike shoe – a New York taxicab-yellow pair of “Special Field Air Force-1 Mids” -- on Black Friday. Adidas scheduled the release of new versions of its popular “Yeezy” and “Ultraboost” shoes on successive weeks in the run-up to Christmas. These coveted items are always high on the gift lists of many families, and sadly, they may also be the cause of tragic deaths among boys and young men.
About 1200 deaths occur every year over coveted sneakers and clothing. Most of these senseless deaths take place among inner city youth, and often, the object of desire are “limited edition” sneakers promoted by shoe companies such as Adidas and Nike, with the imprimatur of basketball or music artists. The shoes cost hundreds of dollars in the store and sell for thousands of dollars online in resale value. Kids see the shoes as the finishing touches for “street wear” brands such as Kith and Supreme, a style which has become increasingly popular with athletes, celebrities, and young adults across the world.
The commercialization of limited-run clothes and shoes is a $55 billion global business, yet it has been accompanied by alarming incidents of lethal violence. Large brands compete vigorously to win the best shoe designers and brand ambassadors in the music and sports industry; they engage in massive and artful promotions to hype the newest shoe, and then purposefully release the shoe in small quantities only at certain locations in order to create a feeding frenzy among buyers. Nike’s iconic Air Jordan series, named after NBA legend Michael Jordan, are the most sought after, but musical artists Pharrell and other famous designers also collaborate with Adidas to produce high-priced shoes. Rapper Kanye’s 9,000-pair limited release of his Adidas Yeezy shoe sold out within seconds around the country. The list price of the shoe was $350; online, the shoes were reselling for over $1500, which contributed to the online resale market alone reaching a value of over $200 million per year.
The money made from these limited releases do not significantly pad Nike’s or Adidas’s bottom lines, as most of their profits come from the sale of more basic running shoes and cross-trainers. But it is the excitement of the limited edition releases, with long lines around the block at midnight in Times Square or Hollywood, that corporate strategists acknowledge as invaluable branding opportunities for the already globally successful companies.
These marketing activities are not illegal, but they are immoral, as they prey on undiscerning youth who think that acquiring the latest limited edition release is more important than life itself. What marketing departments might see as a glamorous and glitzy midnight premiere of a new sneaker appears to worried parents as raw meat being thrown to a pack of hungry wolves.
There is surprisingly little information about sneaker deaths in mainstream or online media. Perhaps corporations suppress it by seeking quiet settlements with victims’ families, or the money involved in the shoe business simply drowns out the lone voices of the victims, or simply that no one cares. But this problem is more than two decades old. In 1990, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story article titled, “Your Sneakers or Your Life.” It told the story of Michael Eugene Thomas, a fifteen-year-old ninth-grader at Meade Senior High School in Anne Arundel County in Maryland, who was found strangled and barefoot in the forest near his school. The inflictor of this attack was a seventeen-year-old classmate at the same school, who stole Michael’s Air Jordans in the process. The shoes didn’t even fit him.
What is amazing about this story is that the same shoes pictured on that Sports Illustrated cover – Air Jordan Ones -- were re-released by Nike in spring of 2015 as a limited release “vintage” shoe. If anything, this conveys the real corporate insensitivity to the problem. When called out, a Nike representative made generic statements about improving the buying experience and giving kids the ability to fulfill dreams with the purchase of shoes.
Corporate social responsibility is not just about being more “green” or using blue recyclable trash cans in the office; it is about doing the right thing to combat incidents that revolve around sneaker and street wear violence. Organizations, like Life over Fashion, are dedicated to warning parents about the dangers of sneaker violence and persuading youth to avoid putting themselves in dangerous situations surrounding material possessions. Websites have also been created to document known cases of sneaker violence to raise awareness.
Some athletes are also speaking out. Stephon Marbury, a former NBA star who grew up on the streets of New York, called out Michael Jordan on Twitter, accusing him of “robbing the hood” and “the only face this dude makes [when kids are dying] is I don’t care.”
Ira Berkow of the New York Times said about the Sports Illustrated story years ago, blaming sneakers or basketball players for sneaker murders is like blaming sneezes for the flu. There are clearly deeper societal issues associated with sneaker violence involving poverty, race, drugs, and cultural divides. But one mother whose son was shot to death on December 21, 2012 in Houston for his limited edition Air Jordans, made a public plea that marketers should heed, “I just want to make it safer for your child, for my child to purchase shoes and not lose their lives.”
Companies and organizations need to stop creating a situation where a limited release could endanger customers. One solution would be for Nike and the like to produce a larger number of the limited release shoes to avoid the frenzy. Though less profitable, such a measure would have little impact on the bottom line profits since limited-release shoes are not the bulk of the market.
Another solution would be to avoid midnight releases. Marketers love this ploy but they must be overruled by socially conscious executives who appreciate that bringing large groups of young men into the city in pursuit of something that they cannot by definition all receive is a recipe for disaster, and ultimately stains the brand.
Some stores across the nation have moved to facilitating limited releases during the morning hours rather than late at night. Another method that holds promise is releasing merchandise online to avoid any physical confrontations, and implementing an online raffle system so those who are able to purchase is completely dependent on luck. These tactics do not solve the deeper problems associated with sneaker murders, but they allow companies to enjoy the branding hype while avoiding potentially deadly scenarios.