Jordan, Nike need to stem violence

I don't know why I keep hoping that Michael Jordan will one day grow a conscience and show he's more than an opportunistic pitchman who overvalues the bottom line.

I'll always respect Jordan's accomplishments as a player and how he helped the NBA become a global game, but I have no respect for some of Jordan's business practices.

Last week, Jordan and Nike released his retro gym shoe, the Air Jordan XI Concords -- which Jordan wore during the 1995-96 season, when the Bulls notched a record 72 regular-season victories and won the NBA championship -- in time for the Christmas rush, but the special release incited a rash of violence nationwide.

Customers engaged in fights and vandalism. A Jersey man was stabbed during a brawl that broke out while people were waiting in line to buy the shoes.
A mother was arrested for leaving her two children, ages 2 and 5, in the car while she went inside a mall to buy a pair of Jordans in Georgia. And gunshots rang out at one mall in California, causing thousands to be turned away.

Nike condemned the violence. "We are extremely concerned to hear of the reported crowd incidents around the launch of the Air Jordan XI at some select retail locations," said Brian Facchini, spokesman for Nike's Jordan brand, in an email statement to USA Today and others. "Consumer safety and security is of paramount importance. We encourage anyone wishing to purchase our product to do so in a respectful and safe manner."

And let me restate the obvious: This behavior is sad and foolish. It's a shoe, hardly worth dying for or injuring someone over. (I wonder if some of these same people who camped out overnight for some shoes would do the same if a free education were being offered.)

Jordan and Nike didn't directly encourage this recklessness. They didn't tell people to trample others who waited in line, and it's not their fault that a segment of people have such skewed priorities.

But that doesn't absolve Jordan or Nike for willingly feeding an out-of-control monster.

Let's put aside the fact that these Air Jordans cost an absurd $180. The marketing campaign for these shoes is essentially akin to yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater.

Nike, which created the Air Jordan brand in 1984, makes a big deal out of the fact that it only releases the Jordan XIs -- arguably Jordan's most sought-after shoe -- once a year and they will be in available only in extremely limited supply.

Translation: Do whatever you have to do to get these shoes.

And if people get hurt in the process, so be it.

Yes, it's the basic supply-and-demand sales strategy, but it's irresponsible for Nike to ignore the violent problems these limited-edition shoes create.

It's hardly a new problem. Sadly this had gone on for 20 years. There have been a number of high-profile, senseless crimes associated with Air Jordans. In 1989, 15-year-old Michael Eugene Thomas, a ninth-grader from Anne Arundel County, Md., was strangled by another teen and left barefoot in the woods near his high school. In 2005, a 17-year-old Chicago teen who worshipped Jordan was shot and killed for his shoes. In 2008, a man was convicted of bashing another man's skull with a baseball bat to rob him of his shoes.

When I was a teenager in Detroit, several of my high school peers were forced to "check in" their Air Jordans (slang for being robbed at gunpoint). And while any flashy or expensive item can draw the wrong kind of attention, Air Jordans are more coveted than most items, especially in inner cities.

In 1990, my colleague Roy S. Johnson wrote a thoughtful piece for Sports Illustrated detailing the astounding number of young people who had lost their lives over gym shoes and other sports clothing. At the time, Jordan told Johnson, "Everyone likes to be admired, but when it comes to kids actually killing each other, then you have to reevaluate things."

But in light of the most recent chaos, it seems Jordan looked at how his shoes' popularity lined his pockets with money and opted not to reevaluate anything.

Jordan has a legendary reputation for avoiding controversial issues, but the overly image-conscious Jordan should understand that all this negative publicity associated with the release of his classic shoe damages his brand.

Just as he did with Nike's gradual response and changes to accusations that its products were manufactured in sweatshops with child labor, Jordan has deferred to Nike and continued cashing the checks. The Bobcats referred my questions to Nike, and when I talked to brand spokesman Facchini on Tuesday, he stood by the initial statement.

Nike condemned the violence, but the statement would have been much more meaningful if the shoe's namesake had taken action, or at the very least, publicly pleaded for the violence to end. It's hard not to notice that a lot of the senseless violence associated with Air Jordans involves African-Americans, specifically young black men. Jordan is one of the most universally beloved athletes of all time, and he has profited considerably from the black community's unconditional support. By not addressing this lingering violence, he seems to be making clear that he's only interested in the black community if it can enhance his financial empire.

Would it alter the bottom line that much if Nike made more of these Air Jordans available to retailers? Would the shoe lose any cachet if Nike made retro Jordans only available online in limited supply?

Apple products are also in high demand, but new items have been released without widespread violence. Air Jordans have generated billions of dollars for Nike. Asking for some corporate responsibility and a conscience doesn't seem like too much.

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.