As the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar winds down, 7,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., a quiet, bipartisan effort involving the beautiful game stirs on Capitol Hill. It's not over soccer, at least not directly. It's about kangaroos.
If enacted, the Kangaroo Protection Act of 2021, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives, would prohibit and criminalize the import, transport, and sale of all kangaroo products in the United States for commercial purposes.
Kangaroo leather has roots in sports to at least the mid-1800s in the manufacturing of croquet equipment. Today, kangaroo hides are important to the global soccer footwear industry, marketed as "k-leather" cleats. It's unclear what percentage of soccer cleats are made with kangaroo leather, but the online market Soccer.com currently sells more than 70 models of firm-ground cleats -- out of more than 600 total -- containing the hide. Manufacturers include Nike, Adidas, New Balance, Puma and Mizuno, among others.
Soccer's most expensive annual releases are often manufactured with k-leather, which is lighter, more malleable and more durable than cowhide. Among this year's k-leather releases are Nike's Tiempo 9 Elite, Adidas' Predator Edge 94+ and Predator Pulse UEFA Champions League models, Puma's KING Platinum 21 Rallye and Mizuno's Morelia Neo III, which all retail from $220 up to $350.
Matt Turner, goalie for the U.S. men's national team and Arsenal in the English Premier League, says he's open to k-leather alternatives.
"If it's better for the environment and products can be made with [materials] to not make the shift so drastic, then it's a positive," Turner told ESPN, noting that he has never found synthetic boots big enough for his size-15 feet, so he still wears kangaroo.
"I wouldn't say players solely wear kangaroo leather anymore -- most companies have [started to] move away from it -- so I don't think the adjustment would take much, to be honest."
If kangaroo products were banned in the United States, manufacturers and players would have to adapt -- or skirt the law, as has widely happened in California since it banned the import or sale of kangaroo products, which includes their meat (often used in pet food), in 2016. Animal rights groups say the ban has largely been unenforced.
In Washington, the House bill has 17 co-signers, both Republicans and Democrats. Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, and Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, are two of the bill's earliest proponents. "And it would pass overwhelmingly," Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, says of the bill he co-sponsored with Rep. Salud Carbajal, D-California, who did not respond for comment.
Moving any bill in a largely deadlocked Congress, however, is another matter. No Senate version of the measure has been introduced. Fitzpatrick noted that "we've dedicated a week to animal protection bills in the past; shark-finning, the Big Cat Public Safety Act, prohibiting overbreeding at puppy mills." He and others are waiting for such a week.
University of Michigan professor Barry Rabe, who specializes in environmental policy and political science, is among the skeptics who say a federal ban on kangaroo products isn't imminently feasible.
"This is the first stage of a long process, and this policy has been stuck in that first stage for 50 years, since the early stages of the Richard Nixon presidency," Rabe says. "It's difficult to see a path in the near-term, especially when we don't see other states moving in a similar direction. Versions of this bill have appeared in multiple Congresses and it's never really gained traction."
As recently as April 2021, the global commercial kangaroo product industry -- both the animals' hides and meat -- was worth roughly $200 million annually to Australia, and the U.S. was its second-largest market in the world at $80 million. The vast majority of k-leather hides go toward the manufacture of high-end soccer cleats.
In 1993, when Australia-raised Craig Johnston, the longtime Liverpool midfielder, designed one of soccer's most popular boots, the aforementioned Adidas Predator, the materials were synthetic. But by the late 1990s -- and certainly by the 2002 FIFA World Cup in South Korea and Japan -- Predators were made with kangaroo leather.
David Beckham, one of soccer's most enduring celebrities and the poster boy for the uber-famous Adidas Predator Mania's debut in 2002, briefly dropped Adidas in 2006 over the use of kangaroo leather.
Even so, kangaroo industry proponents defend the practice.
"Kangaroo skins have been used for millennia; the Aboriginals used them as clothing, blankets because they didn't have sheep," says Dennis King, the executive officer of the Kangaroo Industry of Australia.
Unlike bovine hide, kangaroo leather fibers run cross-hatch, making it more malleable than conventional leathers, King says. Kangaroos also don't have sweat glands, so the maintenance and treatment of their hides is minimal compared to other leathers.
King added that the culling of kangaroos Down Under is important for the environment. Even after the wildfires of 2019-20, the Commonwealth Government estimated in October there are 42.7 million kangaroos in Australia to 26 million Australians. The animals' overpopulation is devastating an ecosystem already affected by climate change, the industry says.
"There's tens of thousands of them on a [farmer's] property and they'll eat just about everything, [so] the cattle and sheep will have to be moved," King says. "We only [cull the population] when there's an excess number of animals that are causing a problem for the environment -- for all the other animals in that area, including native fauna."
It wasn't always open season on kangaroos; the red, western grey, and eastern grey kangaroos all spent time on the endangered species list in the '80s and '90s. In the early 1980s when levels were plummeting, the population was around 20 million, King says. Subsequent conservation and repopulation efforts were wildly successful; they hit "over 60 million" by 2000. A year later, due to starvation, thirst, and hunger, he says that population was halved.
Human activity also has dramatically altered the Australian ecosystem, which has allowed kangaroos to thrive, says King.
"We've cleared land, created farms -- grasslands and watering points where there was [previously] never any water -- and we've got rid of dingoes, which were their apex predator," he says. "We've created an environment where they prosper and there's no natural predator. They'll eat everything, so the other native fauna -- lizards, rats, mice, other animals native to Australia -- have nothing to survive on."
"It's a much broader issue than just kangaroos."
Fitzpatrick says his bill is focused on the commercial killing of kangaroos, independent of environmental issues.
"Australians claiming these animals are harmful to their habitat is totally separate [from] that Americans should accept the commercialized byproduct," Fitzpatrick says. "This is really an aim to curb the commercial side of it, not the environmental side of it."
While the Australian government has sanctioned commercial harvests of kangaroos since 1999, demand has outpaced supply, allowing a rise in virtually unpoliced amateur hunters who often hunt at night by blinding the animals with light flashes and shooting them from a distance.
Nike provided a statement to ESPN that says k-leather "is used in a small portion of football boots because of its unique properties."
"We work with leather suppliers that source animal skins from processors that use sound animal husbandry and humane treatment, whether farmed, domesticated, or wild managed," the statement says.
Adidas provided a statement that says the company is "opposed to kangaroos being killed in an inhumane or cruel manner."
"The share of kangaroo leather in our product material mix plays a minor role and is significantly below one percent because we've been able to substitute kangaroo leather with other innovative materials," the Adidas statement says. "We source the leather exclusively from suppliers that are monitored and certified by the Australian government, ensuring both animal welfare and the conservation of species."
Mizuno's running line has been 100% vegan since mid-2021. At the end of 2021, Adidas announced its first-ever 100% vegan cleat, the Predator Freak, a collaboration with superstar midfielder Paul Pogba and Stella McCartney. This year, Puma announced its first pair of King cleats, the Puma King Platinum 21 Vegan, that are 100% vegan.
World football isn't the only large market affected by the k-leather-free movement. In late 2019, fashion company Versace went kangaroo leather-free, and the Prada Group followed in mid-August 2020. Chanel, H&M, Diane von Furstenberg, Victoria Beckham, Salvatore Ferragamo and Paul Smith have all stopped using it as well.
One of earliest and highest-profile reversals -- in soccer or fashion -- was Italian sportswear giant Diadora. In mid-2019, Diadora launched an ad campaign to promote its revival of the beloved 1984 Brasil boot, hand-crafted with kangaroo leather, rippling through the soccer world and delighting purists and sneakerheads alike.
By October of that year, Diadora announced it was doing away with k-leather entirely.
"Diadora ceased to develop any kangaroo leather shoes -- for the soccer and tennis categories, the only areas that still used this material -- at the end of October 2019," says Bryan Poerner, Diadora's president and CEO of the U.S. division. "The last Diadora collection to include kangaroo leather styles was spring/summer 2020. Any on the market today should be considered remnants or previous collections."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which supports the U.S. ban, cited research showing that k-leather's environmental impact is nearly twice as large as that of synthetic leather and three times bigger than that of plant-based leather. Leather industry groups counter that many "plant-based" products end up containing plastic.
"At the end of the day, it's greenwashing, and they haven't solved anything," says Stephen Sothmann, president of the Leather & Hide Council of America. He added that his industry's biggest competition comes from synthetic materials -- plastics -- which end up being cheaper for apparel manufacturers.
Rep. Fitzpatrick, the bill's co-sponsor, says "a lot of synthetic leathers are generated from recycled ocean plastics: That's a win-win: Cleaning up our oceans and producing high-performing soccer cleats, [without] animal abuse or animal rights issues to contend with. I hope that's where all these companies head; we need to get to truly environmentally responsible materials as quickly as possible."
A big factor against the k-leather bill is geopolitical reality: President Joe Biden probably won't be willing to risk a trade war over it, says Rabe, the Michigan professor.
"The U.S. has tried to create a more active alliance with Australia," he says, pointing to the administration's decision to sell Australia advanced nuclear-powered submarines. That deal ruptured a contract Australia had with France, creating other problems. "Given all these circumstances, the U.S. is really prioritizing its Australian relationship -- so I think [the bill's passing] is a headache the administration can't afford."