While many believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity, most will agree that the line between being edgy and being controversial is one that carries significant baggage. In the case of the competitive world of sneakers, companies look to everything from holidays to burgeoning designers, to athletic heroes as a means to capitalize on a chunk of the billion dollar industry. Even in today’s world which cultivates more tangible news than ever in regards to footwear, more times than not the average shoe’s shelf life is that of its commercial appeal. While hype inevitably fades, certain shoes have kicked up dust and become certifiable controversies and remain relevant not for what they were, but what they were deemed to be. Here are 20 of the most memorable sneaker controversies.
In a letter from NBA Executive Vice President Russ Granik to Nike Vice President Rob Strasser that was written in 1985, it stated the following: “In accordance with our conversation, this will confirm and verify that the National Basketball Association’s rules and procedures prohibited the wearing of certain red and black NIKE basketball shoes by Chicago Bulls player Michael Jordan on or around October 18, 1984.” Officially designated as non-court wearable by Commissioner Stern for “non-regulation colors,” Jordan nevertheless rocked the shoe during his 1984 Rookie of the Year campaign and Nike footed the $5,000 a game fine. Rod Thorn, the Bulls’ general manager at the time, asked Jordan’s agent David Falk, “What are you trying to do? Turn him into a tennis player?” “Now you get it,” said Falk. Up until that point, tennis players were the only athletes who the general public had a hyper awareness to as it related to footwear.
Broaching the question, “Got a sneaker game so hot you lock your kicks to your ankles?,” adidas planned to roll out the Jeremy Scott-designed shoes with a rubber shackle on the ankle in August of 2012 before a Facebook post touting the release caused an outcry due to what many saw as slave imagery. One of adidas’s most high-profile condemnations came from the Rev. Jesse Jackson who said, “The attempt to commercialize and make popular more than 200 years of human degradation, where blacks were considered three-fifths human by our Constitution is offensive, appalling and insensitive.” Ultimately, adidas scrapped the shoe altogether despite Scott’s insistence that his work was rooted in cartoons, toys and his childhood. adidas would say, “The design of the JS Roundhouse Mid is nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott’s outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery. We apologize if people are offended by the design and we are withdrawing our plans to make them available in the marketplace.”
When The Wall Street Journal reported that LeBron James’ signature sneaker would be released for a $315 USD price point, it seemed to create an instant uproar as it related to how much value we placed on athletic stars and the products tied to them. Although there was a distinct difference between the pricier “enhanced version” that boasted motion sensing technology and the base model which retailed for $180 USD, it seemed that the controversy was really about the people that were willing to pay the lofty price, not that Nike was charging that amount.
The “Nike Air” fiery font that appeared on the back of the 1997 release caused a controversy amongst Muslim groups who believed the abstraction closely resembled the word “Allah.” Two years prior, Nike was forced to remove a billboard near the University of Southern California that depicted Los Angeles Clippers basketball player John Williams who starred at Crenshaw High School with the headline, “They called him Allah.” Nike ended up withdrawing all 38,000 pairs worldwide and subsequent retro releases of the shoe featured a more traditional Nike Air font.
During the 2011 Rose Bowl between TCU and Wisconsin, sideline reporter Erin Andrews offered up a halftime tidbit that the Horned Frogs were slipping all over the field because of their new Nike Zoom Alpha Talon cleats. A few days later, Andrews lent her face to Reebok’s ZigTech advertising campaign. In her first public comments on the matter, Andrews said that she was “doing her job when she reacted to ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit saying TCU players were slipping by obtaining and relaying a comment from the team’s equipment manager.” Andrews said of her endorsement deal, “First of all, it’s a fitness shoe, not a football cleat. Second of all, it’s a female fitness shoe. I didn’t see any females on the field at the Rose Bowl. My third thing is, you’ve got to be crazy to think, given how under scrutiny I am, how people dissect every little thing I say, I do, who I hang out with, to think for a minute I’m going to think to myself, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to go after this company right now.’ Are you kidding me?”
The Umbro Zyklon’s name
The Zyklon trainer provoked outrage from Jewish groups, prompting manufacturer Umbro to apologize for the mistake and “regret any offense caused” after realizing that the shoe’s namesake resembled the Zyklon B crystals that were used by the Nazis during World War II as a means of extermination. Dr. Stephen Smith, cofounder of the Beth Shalom Holocaust Center in Nottinghamshire, England said, “Considering the care with which companies normally choose titles for their products, I also find it hard to believe Umbro’s assertion that the naming of the shoe was ‘purely coincidental.’”
After being forced to pay millions of dollars for false advertisement relating to their shoes ability to “tone” wearers, Skechers once again found itself in a public relation’s nightmare pertaining to their “Daddy’s Money” campaign. Seen by critics as a sexist, materialistic ploy by the company that paints female wearers as incapable of succeeding without male assistance, Skechers defended the campaign in a statement to ABC, saying, “The Daddy’s Money name and the collection’s advertising are designed to be fun and lighthearted. We regret that some people have been offended by the name.”
adidas Y1 HUF Ray Fong character
While artist Barry McGee/Twist – who was responsible for the fictional bondsman Ray Fong caricature for the collaboration between adidas and HUF – is half Chinese and he insisted that the depiction was a self-portrait of himself at eight years old, many saw the imagery as racially insensitive. In a press release, McGee said, “The name Ray Fong came from my Uncle Ray Fong who passed away over a decade ago. Keith (HUF) and I never thought the image was ‘racist’ and I am sorry to those people who perceive it that way. All I remember is having Stan Smith’s face on my adidas when I was young and was elated to put a caricature of myself on a shoe when presented the opportunity this year.” Four years earlier, Abercrombie & Fitch found itself running afoul of public adoration when they released a series of T-shirts with similar Asian caricatures with the slogan Wong Brothers Laundry Service — Two Wongs Can Make It White.
While 2009 from Jordan Brand featured re-releases or colorways we had seen in the past like the “Flu Game,” the “Nubuck,” and the White/Red Air Jordan 12s, the “Rising Sun” Air Jordan 12s were the lone, new colorway of MJ’s 12th signature model. The controversy arose from the Japanese Rising Sun Military Flag printed on the insoles, which made waves with Korean and Chinese retailers and consumers upon arrival - as the flag is seen as a symbol for Japanese imperialism and historic aggression toward those countries.
Coinciding with St. Patrick’s Day, Nike attempted to get in on the festivities by naming an SB Quickstrike after a popular beverage that combines Guinness and Bass. The “Black And Tan” name however, has another, more sinister connotation for many Irish people. The Black And Tans were a British paramilitary unit deployed to Ireland in the 1920s to suppress an armed revolution against British rule. The group became notorious for their numerous attacks on the Irish civilian population. Ciaran Staunton, President of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform, told Irishcentral.com that the move left him speechless. “It would be the American equivalent of calling a sneaker ‘the al-Qaeda.’”
Sometimes referred to as “Heir Jordan,” MJ’s youngest son, Marcus, got a scholarship to the University of Central Florida where he hoped to carry on two traditions: being both a dominant collegiate player and donning his father’s signature sneakers. The only problem was that UCF was sponsored by adidas. When Marcus took to the court in a pair of Jordans and his teammates all donned black adidas, he cost the school $3 million USD for not honoring their exclusivity contract.
In 2003, Converse attempted to resurrect its fledgling basketball shoe sector with sponsorships with the likes of Chris Bosh, Kirk Hinrich and Michael Sweetney. However, the timing of the introduction of the “Loaded Weapon” release is what really fanned the proverbial flames. Former NBA All-Star Jayson Williams had been charged with manslaughter in the shooting of a limo driver, Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was charged in the summer with carrying a concealed weapon and Patrick Dennehy of Baylor had been fatally shot. Dave Maddocks of Converse said, “We have no second thoughts about the name, whatsoever. Sports is loaded with battlefield terminology. This is merely the name of a shoe.” Although valid points were made by both sides concerning the controversy, the fact that Converse pointed to “The Weapon” which was worn by Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the ’80s as a source of inspiration for the shoe and its revamped technology, many understood that the name derived from heritage rather than violence.
Looking to capitalize on the retro appeal of sneakers of yesteryear as well as his impending trip to Cooperstown this summer, Reebok decided to reintroduce the “Big Hurt” to the marketplace. The only problem is that they did so without Frank Thomas’s input, didn’t pay him to use his likeness and his Reebok deal had expired in 1998.
As Michael Jordan sat in front of a pool of veteran reporters following the Bulls fourth championship, Daily Southtown reporter and Chicago media legend Bill Gleason diverted from softball questions pertaining to the game and instead lobbed a grenade of a question at His Airness. Asking about the sweatshops and conditions related to where his Nike products were made in the Far East, Michael politely shrugged it off but it was truly a moment for those who thought Michael was untouchable – especially in his hometown.
When it was announced that Kobe Bryant would be lacing up a pair of low-tops, ESPN wrote, “They are the unwritten but widely accepted bylaws of sports footwear. Here, we hold these truths to be self-evident: Golf is to be played in spikes. Ice hockey is to be played on skates. Baseball and football are to be played in cleats. And basketball? Basketball is to be played in a pair of high-tops.” Although a 1993 University of Oklahoma study that appeared in the American Journal of Sports Medicine found no relationship between shoe height and ankle injury, five years later a study in the Journal of Sport Sciences found that increased ankle support did reduce the likelihood of a sprained ankle. At the time of Kobe’s announcement that he had enlisted Nike designers to produce the lowest, lightest basketball shoe of all-time, 13% of the games players missed were attributed to ankle injuries – more than double the injury rate of any other part of the body.
Rick Ross’s controversial lyric on his song “U.O.E.N.O,” where he raps: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it. I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it” caused quite the controversy given that he seemed to be alluding to the sexual assault of a woman. While Ross ultimately apologized, Reebok ultimately cut ties with him after feeling he hadn’t shown the “appropriate level of remorse.”
In a surprise move that caught most sneaker aficionados off guard, Nike unexpectedly released the Air Yeezy 2 “Red October” online back in February and ultimately liquidated their entire stock in only 11 minutes. Was it a move by the sneaker juggernaut as a subtle slap to the ego of West who had decided to leave for adidas in November? What makes this dissolution of retail marriage so interesting is that we have yet to see if it was Nike’s influence on West that made the Air Yeezy so sought after, or if the entertainer added a cultural infusion to the sporting giant. Regardless, this feud played out publicly as if producers for Keeping Up with the Kardashians had a hand in it.
Arnie Kander, the Detroit Pistons’ longtime strength and conditioning coach, said in 2010 that he had never seen as many ankle, knee and groin injuries his team faced during that season. What did he attribute that to: The lightweight Nike Hyperize which was .8 pounds versus other basketball shoes that at the time weighed between 1.4-1.7 pounds. “Since we’ve banned the shoe, knock on wood, we haven’t had any ankle sprains,” Kander said. “Hopefully, the good Lord willing, we won’t have any more and we can finish the season healthy and see what these guys can really do.”
Nike’s global creative director, Tracy Teague, responded later that summer as the Swoosh began rolling out the Hyperdunk. “For us, the Hyperize was a shoe that we tested extensively, as were the Hyperdunk 2010s as well. That’s something I don’t think a lot of folks have a lot of visibility to is the amount of testing that goes on. Something like the Hyperize — we didn’t see those kind of problems. If you just look at the total number of products that were out there, it was a very small percentage that actually had issues with it. But, I mean, we worry about anytime somebody has some issues. But for us, what we’ve been able to do, again, is find that fine edge of lightweight but yet still strong enough to perform…So that’s the challenge, and that’s the brunt of it, but I think it’s good.”
At the heart of the battle between Nike and adidas was simply the ability to employ a one-piece fused yarn upper – with the former calling it Flyknit and the latter calling it Primeknit. Nike ultimately beat their competitors to the punch when they launched in April of 2012 with Mark Parker saying, “We took machines that were designed for something else, we altered the machines dramatically and then we created new software to do something that’s never been done before in footwear. And that is actually going to change the whole formula for how footwear is made. I think you’re going to see that on a larger and larger scale.” When adidas ultimately caught up, it was no surprise that Nike filed suit – but it was Mark Parker’s initial words that proved important. adidas’s legal approach centered on the fact that both shoes boasted intertwined yarns in the construction and it’s a technique that has been employed since the 1940s.
While everyone is familiar with the iconic PUMA Clyde that honors Walt Frazier, their attempt to add a feminine alternative dubbed “The Bonnie” – an homage to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway – didn’t come without its detractors. Featuring a golden pistol or Thompson machine gun on the heel, as well as the famous words “I steal for a living,” many anti-gun lobbyists were of the opinion that the shoes were more “irresponsible” than homages to a cinematic classic.