Cancelling the LeBron Sneaker Release?

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Nike touches a nerve in the debate over race and marketing with $315 shoes -- and black leaders may finally be saying 'enough.' A wrap-up of the week's debate.

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LeBron James wears the LeBron X sneakers at a Nike promotional event in Shanghai today. (Reuters)

On Monday, we posted a story about the history of sneakers and the way footwear companies have marketed them, especially to young black men. The piece raised questions for many readers about whether sneaker advertising is exploitative, and whether footwear companies are sufficiently culturally sensitive. While black intellectual and political leaders have long kept an eye on the weird dance that happens between black cultural pride and the sneaker industry, it looks like Nike may finally have crossed a line with them.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Nike's new LeBron X sneaker -- a new entry in its James-endorsed sneakers series set to drop in early fall -- would cost $315. Why so high a price? As the article we ran on Monday notes, some of this has to do with the materials to be used -- in the case of the LeBron sneakers, these include motion sensors that will record stats on, among other things, how high the wearer jumps. But a lot of it has to do with artificial pressures placed on the market by sneaker companies. They keep numbers low (the LeBron sneaker will be released in an edition of 50,000) to breed hype and justify raising prices.

It's their right, but it has some consequences. It leads to the rioting we see with some sneaker releases. (Logic: If people know there's a limited supply of a highly desirable item, they're more likely to fight to get it than if there's a supply commensurate with demand.) Nike is aware of this and in fact released guidelines for retailers that will reduce the possibility of sneaker-related violence -- or Nike's liability for it, depending on how you want to take them. The price of the sneakers, which are the most expensive Nike has ever released, is particularly badly timed according to Marc Morial, who is president of the National Urban League. Morial asked Nike not to put the shoe on the market:

"To release such an outrageously overpriced product while the nation is struggling to overcome an unemployment crisis is insensitive at best," Morial said. "It represents twisted priorities and confused values." Invoking Nike's advertising slogan, Morial urged parents and the company, "Just don't do it." ...

"Parents struggle to give their children every advantage, and while expensive shoes might draw admiration, achievement is the advantage that truly matters," Morial said. "Those dollars would better be spent on computers, books and school supplies."

Nike later pointed out that the high price would only apply to a version of the sneakers with the special Nike+ sensor technology. A lower-priced version will come out for $190. Still: $190? To put this in perspective, the income of households headed by people ages 15-24 fell 9.3% from 2009 to 2010.

People do have a right to buy what they want, as writers for ESPN and the Huffington Post argued yesterday. But why do they want to buy what they want to buy? While there's some personal responsibility involved in wanting to purchase $315 sneakers, again, a lot of it comes back to marketing.

One thing is clear from this whole debate. The ethics of consumer goods extend beyond where they're produced and who makes them. They also have to do with who they're marketed to, how, at what price, and with what effects.

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Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

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