A con job in shoe game


My buddy Bullwinkle and I were strolling past a high school when the teen-agers there burst into laughter.

At first, I thought they were laughing at me, which would have been an outrage.

But then I looked down at Bullwinkle's feet.

"Good lord, Bullwinkle!" I exclaimed. "What happened to your basketball shoes!"

"Wha'?" said Bullwinkle, quick on the uptake as always. "What's wrong with my shoes?"

I'll tell you what was wrong with Bullwinkle's shoes. They had burst at the seams and were held together with electric tape. They were yellowed and frayed and they looked as if someone -- Bullwinkle perhaps -- had been gnawing on them.

They looked, well, they looked tacky.

"You can't go out in public with shoes like those!" I cried in alarm while the young boys hooted and howled and stomped their feet in derision. "Your shoes look 100 years old."

"Look," I continued with concern, because Bullwinkle, after all, is my friend. "We'll do something. We'll take up a collection. We'll buy you some new shoes."

We had moved past the high school by then and so the catcalls of the teen-agers had begun to fade in the distance.

But Bullwinkle stopped and gripped my arm.

"Do you realize," he said angrily, "that these shoes, these expensive, designer, high-tech, brand name basketball shoes are less than a year old! And look at them, falling apart already!

"Well, I'm not going to stand for this," he continued, heating up. "I'm going to get my money's worth. Let them laugh. I refuse to buy new basketball shoes every six months. This is not a question of money," Bullwinkle concluded, striking a heroic pose, "this is a question of principle!"

I confess, Bullwinkle had a point.

We hang out with a bunch of middle-aged men who lumber up and down the basketball court like waddling walruses. When we try to soar through the air for rebounds we barely get more than our heels off the ground. Our fancy cuts and spins with the ball are as cumbersome as whirling cement trucks.

Oh yes! We huff and we puff and we work up a sweat, but, for all of our hard work, we put so little stress on our feet that our shoes ought to last a lifetime.

Yet, even the most expensive shoe falls apart after about six months. They just don't make 'em like they used to.

This, I believe, is the great, untold story about the current sports shoe craze. For all the flash and glitter of sports shoe advertising, the bottom line is, that's all there is -- flash and glitter.

"Can you imagine?" said Bullwinkle. "If these shoes fall apart for a bunch of fat old fogies like us, can you imagine how quickly they fall apart for kids who're young and healthy?"

Lately, there has been a great deal of concern about the value young people have begun to place on expensive, brand-name sneakers, particularly those youngsters from low-income families, particularly those youngsters who are black.

And, we are right to be concerned.

We live in a society that measures manhood by income and profession. This is a lunatic standard for affluent men in high-status professions, but it has especially tragic consequences for many black teen-agers who feel locked out of the system.

Yet, every place these young people turn in their desperate search for a path to manhood seems to lead to tragic consequences: They try to start families, but they do so before they have the financial resources to care for their children.

They model themselves after the gangsters who seem so glamorous in the movies, only to find that in the real world, such violence is low and ugly and hard to contain -- especially when innocent people get hurt.

Finally, at the urging of sporting goods companies and some of the most clever advertising ever seen on television, some kids seek fulfillment through basketball shoes.

You could say, "Hey! You'll never find your manhood in a shoe!" and in fact, most kids will listen. But, for some kids, a cleverly crafted commercial is more persuasive than common sense.

Now, as Bullwinkle said, comes the final insult: These shoes aren't even well made.

"I pity our young people," said Bullwinkle. "I really do. They've been conned again."

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