An exploration of the politics of sneakers inspired by Nike's divisive 30th Anniversary "Just Do It" campaign
Words: Dane Maharaj | Illustration: Lapin Blanc
By now you're probably aware of Nike's 30th Anniversary "Just Do It" campaign featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. The 'polarising' American athlete first made headlines in 2016 when he started kneeling during the American National Anthem to protest racial injustice in the United States.
You probably also saw the backlash against Nike's Kaepernick campaign – Social media was immediately flooded with Conservatives denouncing the American sportswear brand and quite literally setting their Nikes on fire. Even President Trump decided to weigh in (not that it takes much), wondering what Nike was thinking by using the unemployed Kaepernick in its campaign, when NFL ratings were already on the decline.
But this is not even the first time in the span of two Eminem albums that people have set fire to the heat on their feet in political protest. In 2016, when POTUS was but a wee President Elect, vice-president of New Balance Matt LeBretton (another proudly American company) made comments to the Wall Street Journal showing support for Trump's proposed economic policies. This time, it was the turn of the Liberals to grab the lighter fluid. Images of people burning their glorious suede Made in USA 990s spread across the internet like wildfire (see what I did there). Many saw New Balance as the first American company to publicly support the newly elected President and they were not happy.
A shared criticism of New Balance and Nike during these 'controversies' was that sportswear companies should not take a political stance and should remain impartial. Politics is not their place, after all, all sorts of people buy sneakers, right?
But this could never be the case when we're talking about sneakers and the brands that craft them. Socio-political statements are so interwoven in the fabric of sneaker culture that it is almost impossible to separate the two.
Nike and New Balance are hardly the first sportswear brands to become embroiled in a "Not Sneaker Related" political statement. Half a century ago, at the New Mexico Olympics in 1968, medal winning American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos unlaced their Puma Suedes and took the podium bare-foot, with lowered heads and raised fists. A protest against their Nation's inequitable treatment of African American people. Fast forward to present time and the Puma Suede remains synonymous with its role in the Civil Rights movement (and, of course, its fat laces).
Sometimes sneaker politics take a more direct form – Like the Kaepernick campaign or Dwayne Wade's very rare "Black Lives Matter" Li-Ning's, (which he debuted the same year Kaepernick started taking a knee). Nike and Adidas both openly support, market and celebrate the LGBTQ+ community through their Be True and Pride Pack sneakers. Like a Second Year Art Student, sneaker brands are no strangers to being 'woke' and love showing the world how 'woke' they really are by backing progressive and inclusive issues. Obviously, it's great that brands show support for the marginalised. And we should not be quick to dismiss the impact they have.
However, it is a reality that brands are owned by companies and companies are largely motivated by one thing. Following the Kaepernick campaign announcement, at the same time that sneakers were going up in flames, Nike took a $4.6 billion hit to its market capitalisation. Don't feel too bad though, the brand quickly regained all this value by the close of trade on 10 September 2018. This was partially thanks to a 31% increase in sales over the Labour Day holiday weekend which many pundits claimed to be a result of the Kaepernick campaign.
Maybe the true value of sneakers as a political statement isn't in the campaigns that brands run or the limited sneakers that they drop. Maybe the true politics of sneakers is in their indirect impact.
Sneakers aren't just a comfortable and cool looking way to cover your feet. They're a form of cultural expression. Since the end of World War 2, they have been adopted by sub-cultures of all demographics, many of which have one thing in common: The prevailing socio-political status quo has failed them in some way.
In the 1950s, post-war teenage rebels, tired of the previous generations' mundane and austere society, began wearing the Converse All Star to show the world that they were not like their parents. Later, the punks and grunge kids would adopt this same shoe. Hip-hop's cultural identity would be incomplete without sneakers - From Reebok Classics in New Orleans to the white-on-white Nike Air Force 1 of New York City (the "Uptown"), no other subculture has worn its sneakers as a signifier for its politics quite the way hip hop has.
It is an unfortunate reality that sneakers have often been adopted by the most disenfranchised. In 2007, it was reported that the Air Max 95 was the most common shoe print recorded at UK crime scenes. The Converse All Star and Nike Cortez have both been long associated with Southern Californian gangs. In South Africa, Nike bubbles and Converse hold a similar stigma. If crime is a symptom of poverty, then poverty is a symptom of an inefficient and unfair socio-political climate.
Counter-cultures are, for whatever reason, drawn to well-built, cheap and authentic athletic shoes. Well before Kaepernick refused to stand or the 1968 Olympics protests, sneakers have formed part of a political discourse directly related to their particular time and place in history. The wearing of sneakers by certain cultures can, in and of itself, be seen as a form of protest.
Whether profit or politics is the motive, it remains commendable that sneaker brands choose to risk social backlash to support just causes through their various campaigns and products. The awareness that they create is invaluable. Still, I can't help but feel that the real politics of sneakers lies in the people who wear them.