The shoes are pretty sick, but I literally would not wear them even if Nike paid me to.
I’m not even going to show a picture.
Because the shoes are fucking sick. I have seen and heard (and smelled) a lot in the years that I have been scouring the colon of big time athletics at Michigan. But this is some next level shit.
According to the websites Nice Kicks and Sneakernews, Nike’s Jordan Brand previewed a new sneaker model: the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE. Rapper DJ Khaled—who last fall emceed the Ann Arbor event at which Nike first unveiled the Michigan athletic apparel it had created as part of its $173.8 million deal with the University—posted photos and videos of the shoes on his Instagram account over the past weekend.
I wasn’t in any of the meetings that led to the appearance of this new thing in the world. So I can’t say with certainty whether it is stupidity, greed, irresponsibility, hypocrisy, cynicism, or merely irony that’s being manifested here, but I suspect a combination was at work.
The so-called “Block M,” which appears on the front of the tongue of the new sneakers is a federally registered trademark, which means that any use of the logo on merchandise sold for profit requires approval from the University’s Trademark Licensing office.
Apart from some generalities available to the general public, I don’t know what legal stipulations govern the relationship between the University and Nike. But I assume that the main thing that Nike got for its 174 million dollars was the right to use the block M on merchandise sold for profit. I doubt anyone at Michigan ever saw—let alone signed off on—this shoe before it hit the internet this weekend. But I still hold the University partially responsible for selling its soul—(soul, brand, whatever)—to the highest bidder.
I know, that’s obvious. It’s how college licensing works. Universities sell the rights to use their name and brand logos to commercial entities. According to the Collegiate Licensing Company, “the retail marketplace for college-licensed merchandise in 2013 was estimated at $4.59 billion” and Michigan ranked third behind the University of Texas and the University of Alabama in sales that year.
Along with the money generated by ticket sales, commercial sponsorships, and television contracts, the revenues generated by these licensing deals are why so many of us consider college athletes, whose compensation is limited to aid covering cost of attendance, to be economically exploited laborers.
That is why as a general rule I don’t buy Michigan athletic apparel. It is not that I don’t support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes. It is that I do support those students of mine who are Michigan athletes, and so I refuse to be complicit with this aspect of their exploitation. And yes, I’m aware that is an arbitrary line to draw and that it has pretty much no effect on the system as a whole. But it at least lets me look my students in the eye.
But if all that’s just basic Big Time College Sports 101, then the Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE kicks are, as I say, next level, advanced graduate seminar, shit. To understand why, consider this.
In 1990-1991, the year before the five freshman who would come to be known as the Fab Five arrived on the UM campus, the University took in $2 million in merchandising revenues. In 1992-1993, after their sophomore year, that number had jumped more than 500 %, to $10.5 million, fueled by the extraordinary popularity of the styles pioneered by the five talented and successful young black men. Meanwhile, Nike and the University of Michigan were at the time pioneering what would become the standard relationship between large apparel manufacturers and universities in this country.
On November 7, 2002, University President Mary Sue Coleman announced that Michigan would be imposing sanctions on its own athletic program as a result of NCAA violations involving a handful of players during the 1990s, among them Chris Webber of the so-called Fab Five. The sanctions included vacating the basketball team’s two Final Four games from the 1991-1992 season, and every game of the 1992-1993 season. As a result, the banners commemorating the team’s appearance in the Final Four in both those seasons would be removed from the rafters of Crisler Arena.
In 2012, nearly ten years later, in response to a question from a student of mine during a fireside chat, President Coleman reiterated her position that the self-imposed sanctions were proper and should remain in effect. She said that what happened was not good and was a source of shame for the University.
To this day, despite increasing calls from University faculty, candidates for the Board of Regents, and alumni, the University still does not officially recognize the on-court accomplishments or off-court impact of the five players and their teammates. According to the University, those teams won no games stretching from the end of the 1991-1992 seasons through the whole of the 1992-1993 season. Though these “facts” were the result of the University’s own policy decisions, unilaterally reversing these decisions and reinstating the banners, University administrators appear to feel, could jeopardize the University’s relationship with some wealthy alumni and with the NCAA.
In other words, according to the University, the so-called Fab Five were literally not victors. And yet, on the opposite side from the black Block M on the tongue the new Air Jordan 5 Fab 5 PE sneakers is the word “Victors,” a reference the school’s fight song: “Hail to the Victors.” The five, it seems, as ever, may be considered Victors for the purposes of generating revenue, but not for the purposes of acknowledging the reality of the institution’s history.
And for what it’s worth, I don’t think it matters much that this shoe is designed as a limited edition and not for retail. Both Nike and the University, I feel confident, will still profit indirectly from the manufacture of this shoe, if only through the free publicity for both that is generated by having celebrities like DJ Khaled post images of the shoe to their social media accounts.
I’m disgusted that the University should at one and the same time refuse publicly to celebrate the legacy of the teams and take in revenue associated with the manufacture of a product that celebrates and trades on that legacy.
But here is perhaps the most cynically and shamelessly exploitative aspect of the whole deal. The heel of the shoe features a black hand, index and middle finger crossed in a sign the young players made famous 25 years ago as emblematizing the nickname they’d chosen for themselves: 5X (pronounced “five times.”).
In a recent (unpaid) visit to a class I teach on sports culture at Michigan, team member Jimmy King explained the tension between the two nicknames to a student who was born after Jimmy and his teammates set basketball culture at Michigan and across the nation on fire:
The ‘Fab Five’ was totally the media. That wasn’t us. Doesn’t that sound corny, ‘Fab Five’? That’s corny. Who would give yourself the name ‘Fab Five’? How corny is that? So you know, what we did was come up with our own name, which was ‘Five Times’ or “Five Times One’ and the reason why we came up with that name is because the five of us would come together as basically one group or one ultimate player, kinda like Voltron—if you remember that show, where the five pieces come together and you become this one giant entity. So that was the idea behind the name of ‘Five Times.’ And also it was the number ‘5’ with the letter ‘X’ and the number ‘1’ and the ‘X’ because of a play on Malcolm X with the ‘no identity’ having given ourselves our own name and not being branded by the media.
Jimmy was explaining that they sought, in effect, to elude the latest in a centuries-old tradition in this country of naming (or renaming) black men and, conversely, to take their place in a proud tradition of black men choosing their own names and in the process telling their own stories, authoring the course of their own lives.
So with this new sneaker, Nike and, by association, the University of Michigan have managed to turn a name and symbol the players devised to defy their commercial exploitation into a commodity that will enrich everyone involved except the young men who created it.
According to Steve Busch, Brand Manager at the University, in determining when to approve of the use of the Block M for commercial purposes, the University stays “away from things that we would call the ‘sin items’: We don’t do anything affiliated with items like alcohol, tobacco, drugs or pornography.”
We stay away from “sin items,” but that apparently does not include exploiting the creative talent and cultural impact of five young black men while simultaneously disavowing them.
This should shock us. But I’m afraid it won’t shock very many people. I understand why. But I also think that only further underlines the importance of calling this shit out and revealing it for the strange, unnatural, harmful, and anti-educational practice that it is.
For sports fans, like me, and even educators (also like me), finding a clean path through the thicket of moral entanglements in college sports is more than tricky. It is impossible. You follow college sports, like me, you’re dirty. It’s that simple. Of course, if you use an Apple product, you’re also dirty, and so on. But the impossibility of perfect cleanliness shouldn’t, I think, prevent us from doing the murky good we can.
And nobody associated with the University of Michigan should be cool that the University profits off the labor of students—especially students of color—it officially pretends did not exist.
So even though I feel the shoes are sick, I won’t wear them. I wouldn’t wear them if Nike paid me to. Of course, if Nike or UM were to pay Ray, Jimmy, Jalen, Juwan, and Chris? Well, that would be, precisely, a different story.
Happy International Workers Day.