‘These are trash!’ Is Kyrie Irving’s rant about his Nike shoes the next step of athlete empowerment?

By Jeff Beer

Kyrie Irving doesn’t like his new shoes. The Brooklyn Nets star spoke out this week after designs for his newest signature Nike shoe, the Kyrie 8, were leaked online.

“I have nothing to do with the design or marketing of the upcoming Kyrie 8,” Irving wrote on Instagram. “These are trash! I have absolutely nothing to do with them! Nike plans to release it without my okay, regardless of what I say, so I apologize in advance.”

A signature shoe is perhaps the ultimate expression of an NBA star’s success, as well as a commercial expression of who they are as a person and as an athlete. Fans buy these shoes not just because their favorite player has endorsed them, but also because that player had a hand in its very creation. Nike senior footwear designer Jason Petrie has talked about how LeBron James provides the broad-strokes inspiration and then fine-tunes the details. “LeBron’s the main driver,” Petrie told Slam in 2018. “He gives you those north stars that you go and get.”

Irving’s specific issues with the shoe or its rollout weren’t immediately clear. Irving’s representatives and Nike did not respond to a request for comment.

The first Kyrie shoe launched in 2014, and each subsequent model is a slight evolution or iteration of its predecessor. Each has featured incredibly personal flourishes—like references to his late mother on the Kyrie 3 and to her Standing Rock Sioux Tribe heritage on the Kyrie 5, as well as various color collaborations with some of his favorite brands, including Lucky Charms, Krispy Kreme, and Concepts.

Irving signed a seven-year extension to his Nike deal in 2014 worth $11 million per year. Over the years, his shoe—now in its eighth iteration—has not only been one of Nike’s best-selling basketball models, but also one of the most used among fellow NBAers. In a December earnings call, Nike CEO John Donahoe cited the Kyrie 7 as one of the brand’s top sellers and used it as an example of the company’s e-commerce innovation with its SNKRS app.

In this post Colin Kaepernick era of sports marketing, brands like Nike have started to embrace athletes as three-dimensional human beings who connect with their audience outside of official brand advertising. That means they speak out about their hobbies, passions, and opinions. Nike has been more than willing to embrace this dynamic when it works in the company’s favor, like its blockbuster 2018 Kaepernick ad and helping to support LeBron James’s More Than a Vote work. But it still has a way to go, as evidenced by Olympian Allyson Felix’s 2019 op-ed in The New York Times on Nike’s policy of cutting female athletes’ pay during and after pregnancy—an issue that hasn’t gone away despite the brand’s best efforts to refurbish its image.

This is the second dispute Nike has had over a high-profile signature basketball shoe just this summer. In June, Vanessa Bryant, the widow of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, publicly asked the company to explain why a shoe designed to honor the couple’s late daughter, Gianna, was released without her permission. It turned out the shoes were released by one UK retailer by mistake, and Nike had not officially launched it, but it wasn’t a good look overall for the brand.

Matt Sullivan, author of Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress With the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow, spent a year and a half embedded with Irving and the Brooklyn Nets, and says that Irving is a leader among today’s new breed of outspoken pros. Irving hasn’t been hesitant to step away for mental health reasons, call out racism in certain NBA arenas, and speak about the media’s treatment of athletes. “The Swoosh has always listened to profit-driving talent like Kyrie, but this isn’t about choosing shoelace colors anymore,” writes Sullivan in an email. “Kyrie is leading an activist brand of player empowerment to challenge the very superstructures that pay the bills.”

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