By Berri Wilmore
Lou Gold, Store owner.
In 1985, NBA rookie superstar Michael Jordan played in his prototype shoe for 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 rebellion and a feeling of confidence among other players and fans. They became a pop culture hit. The NBA’s 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 may contribute to as many as 1,200 deaths per year, according to one estimate by opponents of the marketing. (A group formed by the mother of one young man killed over sneakers tracks news reports on Facebook.)
The Air Jordan 11’s (released in December 2018) 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.
Susan Beacham is a kids and money expert who co-founded the non profit Money Savvy Generation and is the co-author of books including O.M.G Official Money Guide For College Students
“Most people without the juice of Michael Jordan take a risk and pay the cost.” said Beacham. “For most of us, it is better to stop, think and reflect before we take a risk. That’s called the skill of delayed gratification – and in life that is the key to success, not a pair $220 Air Jordan 11’s.”
To most, the idea that one would be willing to go to 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.
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, Pharrell 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. But the monetary value for a pair of shoes seems insignificant when the price of sneakers for some is their life.
“Kids are always going to find that there is something they think they can buy that will make them feel important, respected or even loved. But the truth of it is that it is never going to be something you buy that reveals your character. Your character will only truly be revealed and empowered by what you do. So, set an example and stop and think and make your own decision if your hard-earned money is worth spending on a pair of gym shoes that aside from the brand, are not much different than a much less expensive pair of sneakers. You might even start a trend.” explains Beacham, “a trend that helps you be sure that you are not letting someone (like peers) or something (like advertising) make decisions for you.
It’s not a “harmless vice” to buy the next coolest brand, warns Beacham.
“Buying popular sneakers is like reaching for a smartphone because we now need that hit of dopamine we get from the habit we have succumbed to with these kinds of purchases,” she says. “Once we find out that the ‘hit’ of that new thing has not delivered, we go out searching for yet another fix.”
She recommends to be wary of advertisers who want your money and who deliver false promises of acceptance.
“A sneaker is a sneaker and will wear out in time,” concludes Beacham. “But an investment of your money in your savings account will grow and be there when you are ready to make bigger and better choices with your money.”