The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
If you follow contemporary street culture and have internet access, you might have heard some news about the NBA recently. On August 28, North American basketball’s governing body relaxed its sneaker policy, allowing the shoes worn on court to be of any color a player likes. First scooped by ESPN, the news — a reversal of the NBA’s infamous, Jordan-fining uniform rules — was broadcast widely.
SI reported that the change was “part of the league’s attempts to give players the additional freedom to express themselves.” GQ‘s story was headlined “NBA Players Can Now Wear the Coolest Sneakers in the World—On the Court.” The global authorities on what’s cool — basketball zines, hip-hop blogs, other magazines with two-letter abbreviations — all celebrated this apparent victory of freedom over bureaucracy.
In other words, it was a slow news day.
While significant to see in writing, the NBA policy change is more slight nod than raised fist. It’s a fine-print change that will have little actual effect beyond corporate earnings calls. Here’s why.
Historically, kicks had to be at least 51 percent black or white, with team-colored accents where desired. Additionally, the NBA required “uniformity of uniform,” meaning each player’s shoes had to match those worn by the rest of the bench.
These rules in combination are what tied up Jordan circa 1984-85: his “red and black Nike basketball shoes” matched neither the color test nor his teammates’ kicks. Obviously, this all had a massive effect on his level of performance.
Fast forward to 2009, when the “majority white/black” rule was relaxed to allow all-over sneaker colorways where relevant. A Chicago Bulls player could wear all-red shoes and a Boston Celtic could wear all-greens. Four years after creating a league-wide dress code, the NBA was finally loosening up with court shoes, although the league still had its fussy moments (sorry, Kyrie).
The next move came in 2012, when the NBA introduced a calendar of “theme nights” that allowed the wearing of rule-breaking shoes that tied into a certain theme. Such nights included more obvious holidays such as Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as well as a few more arbitrary choices (“Fit Week” or the Grammys, anyone?) that could seem to outsiders like vehicles for player expression in the name of no discernible cause.
In 2017, as Nike took over as the NBA’s official apparel supplier, the home/away jersey rule was overturned. Now, teams could choose from a selection of jerseys regardless of a game’s location — a move as useful for stylish expression as it is for jersey sales. In this context, the sneaker rule change seems rather… expected. Now Nike is in a position to maximize both its jersey and shoe sales.
However, that’s only half the story.
“Inevitable” narratives aside, the real reason the latest policy change feels limp is brick simple: in an era of flex shoes, custom kicks, and brand-side fine subsidies, the NBA’s official stance on sneakers just seems irrelevant.
For one, the very definition of what constitutes a “ball shoe” (and therefore, one would think, part of a basketball uniform) doesn’t seem to exist past “closed toe”: Nick “Swaggy P” Young balled out in YEEZY Boost 750s, suede boots with the ankle support of warm pudding; P.J. Tucker has taken to the court in Air YEEZYs a bunch of times; and Gary Payton II even laced up a pair of KAWS x Nike Air Jordan IVs to play against Oklahoma City (at least this originated as a basketball shoe).
Oh, and there was that one time Gilbert Arenas played in Dolce & Gabbana sneaks. In 2010. Two years before theme nights. And he didn’t get fined.
There’s also the fact that, in the era of instant replays, the colorway of whose foot a ref saw make which play wouldn’t pass the sniff test for final judgment on a call.
Add to this the fact that observing shoe choices is part of the modern NBA fan experience (see: LeBron Watch or Finals sneaker previews) and that any fines leveled at star players will likely be paid by their brand for a good marketing story (see: “sorry, Kyrie”), and suddenly you’ve got a rule wherein the incentive is actually to flout it, with no real incentives for enforcement at any level.
It’s significant that the NBA put sneaker policy update in writing. That’s how policy works. But to treat the change as a moment of progress for basketball, sneakers, or even creative expression in general is myopic.
It’s impossible to ignore the role of the athletes in overturning this, but let’s be real: NBA players could (and did) already wear essentially whatever shoes they wanted. If “Scary Terry” Rozier can take to the court with the Scream killer on his heel, it’s hard to buy the argument that the lack of a colored outsole is some sort of draconian barrier to free expression.
This specific rule change happened at this specific moment because it was — in no particular order — a minor nuisance for players, a PR boon for brands, a theme night-circumvented speed bump for the NBA, and, last but not least, an off-season Tuesday.
Here’s what the NBA’s new sneaker policy really means:
Athletes get even more room for daily craziness and we get more outrageous basketball moments to talk about. This is a game that was saved from bankruptcy in the ’80s by poster dunks. Fans like mega-moments. Add to that the popularity of shoegazer accounts such as @brkicks, and the content prints itself — not to mention the cash.
It’s now open season for brands to get ever-crazier product on court. James Harden’s Y-3 capsule was just the start. With PUMA making aggressive inroads into basketball, how long before we see McQ at the free-throw line? Steph Curry sneaker-maker Under Armour just launched its elevated Sports Style line. Nike, whose design experimentation and willingness to collaborate knows no bounds, is now the league’s official equipment partner. The sacai’s the limit.
All in all, brands will continue to weave stories of an off-court/on-court creative ecosystem to move product, the league got a great off-season PR moment, and sports fans didn’t have to think about baseball. Everyone wins.
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