It’s Gotta Be the Shoes: NCAA Hypocrisy and the Oregon Ducks


This weekend marks the beginning of the college basketball season.  For Oregon and Georgetown, it began in South Korea as part of the 2013 Armed Forces Classic.  Putting aside the hyper nationalism, and the collective efforts from the NCAA/ESPN to convert patriotism into profits, to convert athlete labor into financial rewards, the event shined a spotlight of the collegiate sporting hypocrisy.  And I am not even talking about the fact that student-athletes travelled to Korea IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SEMESTER.  Student’s first, right?

Rather, I am talking about two Oregon student-athletes who were denied the ability to play in this game, or even travel with the team.  The NIKE Ducks, in consultation with the NCAA, suspended Dominic Artis and Ben Carter for selling their shoes; yes, their offense was selling the shoes the university gave them as part of COMPENSATION for making the school, the NCAA, ESPN, NIKE, and countless others billions of dollars.  “It’s gotta be the shoes.” They lost a chance to travel to South Korea, and likely play in 9-12 games.  They also will need to donate $1,800 to charity (this is the amount of money they reportedly made through selling shoes) as part of their punishment.  Wear the swoosh, good job; advertising  swoosh, part of the collegiate experience.  Try to see the swoosh, watch out.

The suspension of these two student-athletes, and the rule allowing for this punishment, encapsulates everything that is wrong with the collegiate sports.  While NIKE makes billions, in part because of the visibility provided by student-athletes, while colleges and universities get filthy off the labor of student-athletes, while coaches get paid (Dana Altman, Oregon coach, signed a 12.6 million contract with the school in 2011), student-athletes are left to accept table scraps – and punished if they try to sell them.

Amid the hoopla and the media-created fantasy of the glamorous life of collegiate athletes, one should pause to ask themselves: “why would two young men risk so much for $1,800 dollars?”  While I don’t know the answer to this, it’s hard not to speculate given the larger landscape facing college athletes. In  “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” Ramogi Huma and Ellen J. Staurowsky note the following:

  1. College athletes on full scholarship do not receive a “free ride”. For the 2009-2010 academic year, the average annual scholarship shortfall (out of pocket expenses) for Football Bowl Series (FBS) “full” scholarship athletes was $3,222.
  2. The compensation FBS athletes who are on “full scholarship” receive for living expenses (room and board, other expenses) situates the vast majority at or below the poverty level.
  3. The percentage of FBS schools whose “full” athletic scholarships leave their players in poverty is 85% for those athletes who live on campus; 86% for athletes who live off campus.
  4. The average FBS “full” scholarship athlete earns less than the federal poverty line by $1874 on campus and $1794 off campus.
  5. If allowed access to the fair market like the pros, the average FBS football and basketball player would be worth approximately $121,048 and $265,027 respectively (not counting individual commercial endorsement deals).
  6. Football players with the top 10 highest estimated fair market values are worth between $345k-$514k on 2009-10. The top spot was held by University of Texas football players. While 100% of these players received scholarships that left them living below the federal poverty line and with an average scholarship shortfall of $2841 in 2010-11, their coaches were paid an average of over $3.5 million each in 2010 excluding bonuses.
  7. Basketball players with the top 10 highest estimated fair market values are worth between $620k-$1 million in 2009-10. The top spot was held by Duke basketball players. While 80% of these players received scholarships that left them living below the federal poverty and with an average scholarship shortfall of $3098 in 2010-11, their coaches were paid an average of over $2.5 million in 2010 excluding bonuses.
  8. The poorest football and basketball players (generated combined FB and BB revenues of $30 million or more in 2009-10, yet live in the poorest bottom 1/3 of all of the players in the study live between $3,000-$5,000 below the poverty line in the report for further details.

The financial predicament facing student-athletes stands in stark contrast to the gold-lined pockets of college coaches, the platinum realities of colleges and universities, or their diamond studded realities of the sports media.  They don’t even own their own likeness, their books, their time, their shoes or their futures.  Billions of dollars fall into everyone’s hands but theirs. Still student-athletes struggle to make ends meet, in part through the profits and allure of shoes and apparel.  The myth of amateurism is alive and well.  Punishing those who sell shoes is all about sustaining the myth of amateurism; and that’s about protecting profits.

The suspensions of Dominic Artis and Ben Carter have not prompted national conversations about a corrupt and hypocritical NCAA; it has not led to columnist after columnist predicting reform for an organization dedicated to protecting its profits; it has not led to more #APU declarations from university faculty, who should be standing up for their students.  Instead, we have gotten endless celebrations of the spectacle of collegiate sports; countless stories about student-athletes living the American Dream, ignoring the fact for all too many student-athletes collegiate sports remains fool’s gold.  While celebrated for the mythology of “bootstraps” or pulling themselves up by their shoelaces, student-athletes that dare to challenge exploitation are punished.  Treated as commodities themselves they are not allowed to sell and profit off other commodities. Stick that in your RULE book.  It’s gotta be the shoes

Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education

(Christian Petersen/Getty Images for Nike, via ABC News)

Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream

September 7, 2012, 12:26 pm

By David J. Leonard

The media is abuzz with reports of Nike’s fall release of the LeBron X. Not surprisingly, the widespread commentary doesn’t focus on production conditions or even the technological components of the shoe, but instead on the cost of the shoes. According to The Wall Street Journal, the LeBron X would retail for a whopping $315 dollars; subsequent reports noted that Nike would market the model with all the hi-tech bells and whistles for only $290, with a basic model costing around $180. Pushing the boundaries of what constitutes a shoe (not just laces and “leather”), the LeBron X will include Nike’s + technology, which allows athletes to measure vertical leap, activity, and otherwise assess basketball progress.

Rumors of a $315 shoe led commentators to wax sociological, using the moment to lament the values and cultural priorities of the nation. More specifically, these sociological impersonators lamented the warped values of the poor, of inner-city residents, and of youth—blacks—who would probably flock to stores to purchase the shoes. “The lust for expensive LeBron X sneaker signals a bigger problem,” writes Daryl E. Owens, a columnist at the Orlando Sentinel. Whether linking it to warped priorities or reviving memories of black youths murdering each other for expensive shoes in the 90s (and more recently), Owens points to the dangers of consumption from certain communities: “For too many, the problem is a malignant mutated strain of conspicuous consumption, crossed with hardship and low self-esteem.” Greg Doyel of CBS Sports also objected that “LeBron is trading on the most vulnerable part of his fan base: their self-image.”

Imagining black youth as lacking values, self-esteem, and agency, Doyel and company see the shoes—and not poverty, job and housing discrimination, the prison-industrial complex, divestment in public education, etc.—as the destructive influence on the future of this generation. In other words, the allure of these shoes, and the desire to get one’s hands on them at any cost, is the explanation for persistent inequality. Painting a picture of black youth rioting and killing for these shoes, of a community lacking values, these commentators play on the worst kind of stereotypes and misinformation.

Yet it seems clear that Nike does have a message to market. The company is selling high-school and college athletes the prospect of not just a career but also a future. As with higher education as a whole, this is a message directed at the middle-class—at suburban whites rather than blacks. The LeBron X provides the electronic wizardry for student athletes to better their game. These shoes are imagined as yet another device or investment in a path toward the American dream. Akin to private coaches, the best equipment, nutritionists, private traveling teams, and other financial burdens, the shoes are yet another example of how sports achievement is tied to consumption and investment, to privilege. Akin to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for a degree from an elite college, tens of thousands on private high schools or preschools because they are pipelines to the American dream. The shoe itself—and the reaction—is a metaphor for what is happening to higher education.

Continue reading @ Shoes, Diplomas, and the American Dream – The Conversation – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

NewBlackMan: Does It Have to Be The Shoes?: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Wings”

Does It Have to Be The Shoes?:

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Wings”

by David J. Leonard | NewBlackMan

“It’s gotta be the shoes”—Mars Blackmon

These six words in many ways defined the late 1980s and 1990s, encapsulating the rise of hip-hop, NIKE, Michael Jordan, and the racial-class narratives embedded in each of them. For a teenager growing up in the 1980s, in many ways this phrase defines my generation. Rather than generation X, we are the “It’s gotta be the shoes generation.”

The problems inherent in such an ethos crystallized for me after watching the new video from Seattle’s very own Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.

“Wings,” directed by Zia Mohajerjasbi, initially plays on the childhood memories associated with Air Jordans, ideas that likely resonate with many of this generation today.

I was seven years old, when I got my first pair

And I stepped outside

And I was like, Momma, this air bubble right here, it’s gonna make me fly

I hit that court, and when I jumped, I jumped, I swear I got so high

The joy of success on the court, of ballin’ like the big boys, was not a pure accomplishment, but one that was wrapped up in commercial ideas and commodification from the jump. The purity of being able to touch the net was never, in his mind, indicative of his own skills but that of the shoes. It had to be the shoes.

Yet, the tune (in the song and for the young boy in the video) quickly changes, away from childhood dreams and nostalgia for the sweet smell of brand-new kicks, to the painful realities about shoes.

And then my friend Carlos’ brother got murdered for his fours, whoa

See he just wanted a jump shot, but they wanted to start a cult though

Didn’t wanna get caught, from Genesee Park to Othello

Carlos’ brother, like other kids, in the 1980s, learned all too painfully about the value placed on a pair of shoes. Worth more than a life; worth more than a future; the quick transition from “wanting to be like Mike,” to fly, to stark reminder about those killed over Mike’s shoes is a powerful message. Here, Macklemore not only illustrates the value placed upon shoes but challenges listeners to think beyond the nostalgia for balling in new Jordans to remember those who died for those new air Jordans.

Yet, the song is not purely about the cultural meaning and history behind shoes, but a powerful commentary on commodification. It is a story of the valued put on shoes culturally, economically, socially, athletically, and stylistically, even though shoes are shoes.

We want what we can’t have, commodity makes us want it

So expensive, damn, I just got to flaunt it

Got to show ‘em, so exclusive, this that new shit

A hundred dollars for a pair of shoes I would never hoop in

Look at me, look at me, I’m a cool kid

I’m an individual, yea, but I’m part of a movement

My movement told me be a consumer and I consumed it

They told me to just do it, I listened to what that swoosh said

Look at what that swoosh did

See it consumed my thoughts

Highlighting the ways in which products define our sense of identity, demark coolness, and otherwise tell the world something about us, “Wings” laments the power ascribed onto shoes. It questions that stock we put into consumption and products, a process that merely enhances the stock value of companies like NIKE.

In this regard, the song and the video simultaneously show a process, the difficulty in challenging the marketing and message to say, “they are just a pair of shoes.” The allure of the American Dream, of coolness, and the product are seductive. In fact, this is part of the marketing strategies of companies like NIKE, which invest in the production of image and advertizing, all while minimizing costs of labor. In selling a dream, in selling hipness, athleticism, coolness, and an overall image, the shoes themselves and the conditions of production are erased and rendered meaningless.

Sue Collins, in “‘E’ Ticket to NIKE Town, describes this tactic as “commodity fetishism.” It is “the kind of “magic” that occurs when we displace value as a product of human labor by projecting it onto objects as if the value were inherent. Marx described a commodity as a mysterious thing because ‘in it the social character of men’s labor appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labor; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labor is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves but between the products of their labor.’” She continues as follows:

Fetishism in postmodern consumer culture entails emptying commodities of meaning or ‘hiding the real social relations objectified in them through human labor’ to make it ‘possible for the imaginary/symbolic social relations to be injected into the construction of meaning at a secondary level.’ Production, then, empties, and advertising fills, and in this way use value is subsumed by exchange value. The Nike swoosh and the Jordan brand as cultural commodities not only constitute a symbolic code, they also take on a system of significations, coded abstractions realized by “ideological labor,” to borrow from Baudrillard. In the fetish theory of consumption, the so-called magical substance of consumer products is really part of a generalized code of signs, what Baudrillard refers to as “a totally arbitrary code of difference, and that it is on this basis, and not at all on account of their use values or their innate ‘virtues,’ that objects exercise their fascination.”13 In advanced capitalism, objects lose any real connection with their practical utility and “instead come to be the material correlate (the signifier) of an increasing number of constantly changing, abstract qualities.”

Whether in the pain and suffering of those who labor in NIKE factories, or those who died over the shoes, we can see the damages resulting from commodity fetishism. “Wings” highlights the production of consumers obsessed with shoes not as a functional tool but as a commodity that encapsulates a myriad of narratives and signifiers.

What I wore, this is the source of my youth

This dream that they sold to you

For a hundred dollars and some change

Consumption is in the veins

And now I see it’s just another pair of shoes

This song spoke to me in so many ways: its message resonates with my own childhood experiences and my constant pledge of allegiance to the shoes (and the matching hats); it connects to the persistent inner battle between my critical self that understands commodity fetishism and the realities of worker conditions and the consumer in me that wants; and mostly it speaks to me as a father who increasingly struggles in helping my daughter see those shoes, sweatshirt, jeans, etc as neither sources of joy nor signifiers of cool but simply clothes. I am hoping that her generation will heed the message of “Wings” and not follow in the footsteps of the “it’s gotta be the shoes” generation.


via NewBlackMan: Does It Have to Be The Shoes?: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Wings”.