Fatal muggings for shoes are partially due to sneaker hype, a documentary argues

Is it worth killing for?
Is it worth killing for?
Image: Reuters/Brendan McDermid
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Americans are willing to kill each other for shoes. And while each fatal incident may seem like a freak occurrence, sneaker-motivated deaths can mount over time.

There is no official tally of the total, but a new documentary, excerpted recently by GQ magazine, estimates that 1,200 people die over sneakers every year. It’s a shockingly high number that almost certainly overreaches. But any figure is arguably too high. Called Sneakerheadz, the documentary suggests one factor in the violence is the marketing hype machine that transforms sneaker releases into consumer feeding frenzies.

Update, Nov. 23, 9:30a.m. EST: David T. Friendly, the director of the documentary, says the source of the statistic is an estimate offered by opponents of these marketing strategies originally reported by ABC News. “As a general comment, let me just say we were extremely sensitive to the issue of violence associated with sneaker sales while making our documentary,” Friendly said in a statement when asked if he’d received any indication the figure was inaccurate. “We carefully checked our source and still reported that number only as an estimate.” But whether it was 1 death or 1,000, he added, it’s enough that manufacturers should take the maximum precautions possible to protect lives.

“It didn’t surprise me that kids would become violent and really ferocious about these shoes, because the way [companies] market them, they market them as if they’re the dream,” Mike Epps, the actor and avid sneaker collector, says in the video.

In particular, critics have accused basketball legend Michael Jordan and manufacturer Nike, which owns the Jordan brand, of encouraging frenzied behavior over their shoes. The most sought-after Jordans are expensive and released in limited quantities, making them highly sought-after and valuable. In October, former NBA star Stephon Marbury singled out Jordan in association with ”kids dying over shoes,” when he announced the return of his own $15 Starbury sneakers to market.

Nike and Adidas have tried various measures to stem the bloodshed that can occur as people anxiously line up for sneakers, and Nike even changed the timing of its sneaker releases from midnight to morning, believing people would be less aggressive. But deaths don’t just occur during launches.

There are deeper societal issues of violence and status involved. Looking back at Sports Illustrated’s famous 1990 cover story, “Your Sneakers or Your Life,” which focused on the murder of a 15-year-old boy over his Jordans and brought sneaker violence to national attention, it’s evident that the 17-year-old killer in that case didn’t do it just for the shoes. The victims of these crimes are disproportionately young, black men.

Undoubtedly, however, sneakers continue to create opportunities for some problems to play out. Early on, the Sneakerheadz clip shows news footage from a mob scene of customers stampeding to get newly released Jordans, and stories of actual deaths are far from rare.

What can be done about it? Twenty-five years after Sports Illustrated’s big story, there’s still no good answer.

This post has been updated to clarify that the estimate of the number of people killed over sneakers each year in Sneakerheadz has not been corroborated, and may well be an over-estimate.