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Friday, July 21, 2006
The Salivating Army? Shoe Companies that Donate Free Sneakers to Youth Basketball Players

A couple of weeks ago, we discussed Eli Saslow's excellent piece in the Washington Post on Justin Jenifer, the 10-year old basketball phenom who is already being aggressively recruited by shoe companies. This theme of marketers' exploitation of kid athletes resonates again in Mark Alesia's excellent piece in the Indianapolis Star on shoe companies "donating" free sneakers to youth basketball teams that often feature elite players. Interestingly, the schools receiving these sneakers may be violating Title IX, since only the boys' teams tend to get the donations, while the girls' teams do not. As a result, the boys get free sneakers while the girls end up paying a lot of money for the female version of the same shoes.

I think there are two stories going on here.

1) The Gender Equity Story: the obvious, but still important story. Shoe companies supplying sneakers to boys but not girls is probably a wide-spread phenomenon, and is probably apparent in every state. The disparity in treatment probably comprises a violation of Title IX, which takes a fairly inclusive approach to measuring equal athletic opportunity students of both sexes. In fact, Title IX expressly instructs the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights to ensure that there is "equivalent treatment, benefits, and opportunities" in equipment and supplies (among other things). This is the kind of story that got Title IX passed in the first place, and one that further validates its existence.

2) The Sneaker Marketing Story: the more interesting story, I think, because it's subtler and yet potentially far more significant. Consider recent comments by Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for Commercial Free Childhood, told to Julie Sabatier of the New Standard:
"Essentially, it's a way to promote brand loyalty. It makes the corporations look as though they're doing a positive thing. It looks like corporate social responsibility, but in reality, its marketing."
In a way, Linn's comments remind me of a complaint against the tobacco industry and their public service advertisements: those PSAs seem to provide a forum for companies with dubious histories to rectify their image, which turn may help their sales (and thus achieve the opposite of what the PSAs were ostensibly designed to achieve). In a recent Wisconsin Law Review article, I outlined a similar idea in regards to fast food companies promoting "eat well" campaigns, while simultaneously promoting the consumption of Big Macs and Happy Meals etc.

It would be interesting to hear what these shoe companies have to say about their donations, but they have declined comment. I imagine that they have concluded that the value of the brand loyalty they are establishing with boys is worth more than the cost of the donated sneakers, while for girls, they have reached the opposite conclusion: the value of establishing that type of brand loyalty is less than the cost of donations.

Economically-sensible, perhaps, but socially desirable?

Note: the picture above is from Aaron Renier's art collection.


Why should the boys team suffer if they can be given free shoes? Until women's basketball becomes bigger, it will not be in a company's interests to devote resources to a girls' program. Also do we really know how often boys get things and girls don't. Your second argument is much stronger, and I have to wonder why people are okay with the use of children by large corporations.

Blogger justin -- 7/21/2006 3:38 PM  

Couldn't the shoe companies get around this problem by giving the shoes directly to the athletes, rather than routing the donations through the school, or would that jeopardize the athletes' amateur status.

More generally, is the article's assertion that the school must match any gift to a specific team to ensure gender equity, correct? How does this work with major college football programs that solicit donations for football specific activities?

Anonymous PK -- 7/21/2006 3:54 PM  

Good post and comments. The correct phrase is "gender equity" and not "gender equality." Eventually this practice will end and schools will in no way be in violation of Title IX. However, it is people like MM who help expose the practice!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 7/21/2006 4:32 PM  

There is a difference between an "argument"as justin tries to point out and the fact that these contributions may violate Title IX. That's not really an argument for/against, it's just a statement. Do they violate Title IX, maybe/maybe not, but it does not seem to me like McCann really takes a position either way.

Anonymous Elias -- 7/21/2006 4:55 PM  

Probably shortsighted from a marketing standpoint to exclude girls' programs. Post-high school, women in households control a large percentage of household purchasing decisions, particularly vis-a-vis children's clothing (and shoeing). Hard to see why the shoe companies would not want the goodwill of these future consumers generated by free donations to the girls' programs.

Anonymous Senator Blutarski -- 7/21/2006 5:59 PM  

The companies aren't being shortsighted...if they dump 5,000 dollars into the next LeBron or the next Sue Byrd...which is going to return them more money...It is not fair for this to be a violation of Title IX. If a girl's softball team can get donations, and the boys baseball team can't, it shouldn't be an issue...whoever can get the money should get it. Also, an athelete taking a donation would probably cost him or her their amature status

Blogger justin -- 7/21/2006 7:47 PM  

It is funny that shoe companies will "donate" free sneakers to youth, under the guise that they are benevolent and philanthropic towards the youth...on the other hand, the very shoes they are donating are manufactured in countries where child labour laws do not exist. This fundamental disconnect seems to be a logical fallacy!

Blogger BionicBuddha -- 7/21/2006 7:54 PM  

Seems like a nice program, but the idea that shoes are going to do something huge is really just spin. If they want to fix the real problems, they need to fix the system and not just add candy to the top of a rotting cake.

Blogger R2K -- 7/21/2006 8:22 PM  

The mother in a household will typically select the sports shoe brand of her youngest children, and then she often controls the pursestrings for the purchases of her older children (even if those older kids select the shoe and brand). So, I still think it's shortsighted of them from a marketing standpoint.

The notion is not that these women are going to go out and by bucketloads of Sue Byrd sneakers, but rather that they might develop brand loyalty (or positive feelings toward a brand) so that when they or their children are purchasing shoes, they lean towards a particular brand.

Anonymous Senator Blutarski -- 7/22/2006 12:47 AM  

This blog is fantastic!

As a female athlete I take offense to shoe companies only "donating" shoes to boys. Men's sports are obviously more popular than women's. That should not mean that at the age of 10 young boys are the only benefactors of free shoes. Perhaps if girls had the same funding and opportunities than the boys their age we would see a couple of them in the NBA or NHL in the next decade.

Blogger genben -- 7/22/2006 8:20 PM  

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