By Berri Wilmore
In 1985, NBA rookie superstar Michael Jordan played in his prototype shoe to his first sneaker, the Air Jordan 1’s. The shoes violated NBA dress code, and were effectively banned. It was the best thing to happen to the sneaker business. Jordan’s refusal to remove the shoes earned him a fine of $5,000 per game, which NIKE paid, and ultimately inspired a feeling of rebellion and a feeling of confidence among other players and fans. They became a pop culture hit. The NBA ban of the Air Jordan 1’s, which originally cost $65, lit the fuse on what is now a $55 billion dollar global industry.
This phenomenon has been a staple in pop culture and a catalyst for movies and television shows. It also has resulted in over 1,200 deaths per year, according to GQ Magazine.
The Air Jordan 11’s (set to be released in December 2017) will cost consumers $220, a price that sneakerheads, or those who collect or have an affinity for sneakers, will happily pay. As sneakers grow in popularity, it is clear that sneaker collecting is a high risk activity that comes with physical and mental health ramifications.
To most, the idea that one would be willing to go through such lengths for a pair of shoes seems absurd, to say the least, but to David Williams, social scientist and Professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Harvard University, the phenomenon makes perfect sense. “Most people are on a quest to find a sense of meaning and belonging,” says Williams. “Status is one way of signaling who they are.”
For those able to spend $300 on a pair of sneakers without thinking twice about it, sneaker collecting is a fun pastime, a way to express their love for basketball and sneakers.
But there is a large population of young people within the sneakerhead community, typically African American teenagers, who pay a price much higher than the $300 advertised price.
In June 2017, 19- year- old Dante Tyrell Ford shot and killed 17-year- old Corey Thomas at a bus station in Detroit, Michigan. The dispute occurred over Thomas’ Air Jordans, and ended in Thomas being left on the road to die. This was not the first time Ford had killed someone for a pair of shoes, according to police reports. Sadly, Thomas wouldn’t be the only teen assaulted for a pair of Jordans in his last year. For some, being a sneakerhead is a low-risk hobby. For others, it is a game of life or death roulette every time they step out of the house.
Lou Black has been collecting shoes nearly 15 years. His coastal town of Virginia Beach was swept up in the sneaker trend when local artist, Pharrel Williams, released a line of the shoes. Gone were the days of wearing what parents picked out.
“If you didn’t have a certain sneaker on you were going to get clowned,” said Black. “I think that bullying piece is always going to be there. Fortunately, I was never bullied for my clothes.”
Others are not so fortunate. “Clothes, haircuts, shoe style and accessories really do matter in helping kids gain peer approval,” says Cynthia Lowen, author of Bully: An Action Plan for Teachers. Shoes are a status symbol, a way of showing the world that the wearer is, to put it bluntly, good enough to be accepted by their peers. While wearing nice shoes is a way to stave off bullies, it is also like wearing money on your feet. Strapped for cash, it is not unheard of to steal another person’s shoes and sell them for cash.
“[They] punched and kicked him until he was unconscious, and then they kept punching and kicking him until someone called the police,” says Erika Winter, whose son, Aiden, was assaulted over the Air Jordans he was wearing. “They could’ve killed him.”
Aiden was not the first person, and he certainly won’t be the last, to be assaulted or harassed over what they’re wearing. The sneaker-collecting culture is growing exponentially, and the price for sneakers continues to increase; though the monetary value for a pair of shoes seems insignificant when the price of sneakers for some is their life.