Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Nike creates a sneaker for Baltimore’s infamous “12 O’Clock Boys”

So, this happened: A few days ago, Nike announced plans to release a special sneaker glorifying Baltimore’s infamous “12 O’Clock Boys”.

According to SneakerNews.com (an ‘Asphalt & Rubber’ for the running shoe industry)
The SFAF1 Mid, designed by Ben Kirschner of Nike, features bold can’t-miss NIKE AIR branding on the upper, “RAISE IT UP” on the ankle straps, and miniature Swoosh logos at the fore-foot, but the true prize is behind the durable materials that can withstand the blazing heat given off by the dirt-bike motors and the shifting of the toes.

Why this caught my eye was not the concrete poetry of the phrase, “…and the shifting of the toes” but rather the fact that Nike’s basically endorsing the 12 O’Clock Boys – a crew (some would say a gang) that exists only to break the law.

Lofty Nathan’s award-winning documentary 12 O’Clock Boys follows Pug, at left, as seeks acceptance in the crew.
“So what’s next, Nike?” I wondered. “Special sneakers for shoplifters?”

There are renegade dirt bike gangs in other cities, including mine, but Baltimore’s famous for the phenomenon, which dates back over a decade to a fateful decision by the Baltimore Police Department, to stop chasing fleeing dirt bikers, after one early chase resulted in the rider’s death. Pretty much everyone in Baltimore’s familiar with the 12 O’Clock Boys, but the group became nationally famous in 2013, with the release of an eponymous documentary film.

The 12 O’Clock Boys movie was made by a young guy named Lofty Nathan who wasn’t really a motorcyclist, or even a filmmaker. He was taking a ‘documentary’ course in art school. He chose the subject on a whim, after seeing the crew popping wheelies with apparent impunity around Baltimore.

Nathan’s inexperience belied his skills as both a filmmaker and storyteller. To be clear: ‘12 O’Clock Boys’ is the best documentary film ever made about motorcycling. Better than ‘Why We Ride’, ‘Dust To Glory’, yes better than ‘On Any Sunday’. Feel free to jump straight down to the Comments section and flame me now without even finishing this essay; I’ll still be right. And that’s not just my opinion. It was selected by the SXSW committee; Toronto’s prestigious Hot Docs film festival gave Nathan its ‘Emerging Artist’ award. The American Film Institute released a short film about Nathan’s film; AFI, FFS!

All of which put the motorcycle industry and media in an awkward position. My friend Courtney Olive scored an interview with Lofty Nathan, and pitched it to Cycle World, which turned him down because, “…it’s not an image of motorcycling we want to promote.”

I admit, the 12 O’Clock Boys’ behavior is prima facie illegal, dangerous, and places innocent bystanders at risk. And I don’t doubt that many of those bikes are stolen property. (Although when I asked the Baltimore PD if it would be safe to assume most are stolen, T.J. Smith, an official spokesman, surprised me by writing, “No. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. The 12 O’Clock Boys don’t necessarily represent all dirtbikes in Baltimore.”)

Whenever I watch urban ‘stunting’ videos I think, first, being really good at wheelying is a lame talent; they’re basically using about 1% of their motorcycles’ potential. And, they’re not really good, anyway. (Cue Toni Bou: “Do you even wheelie, bro’?”) 

But for me to criticize them for sucking, for not being worthy of the bikes they’re riding, would be an extreme case of the pot calling the kettle black. I suck, too. But I still have fun. I think one of the reasons the movie about them left the moto industry shuffling its feet and looking at the ground was, those guys in the movie obviously get all the same things out of riding that we do: a sense of camaraderie, freedom, a break from mundane and constricted lives, adventure & thrills, and an endless opportunity to improve skills.

The 12 O’Clock Boys just add openly taunting the police to that list of satisfactions. And to be fair some of the satisfaction they take in that is understandable.

The foregoing masterpiece of equivocation, however, doesn’t change the fact that I can hardly friggin’ believe that Nike’s admiringly created a shoe for them.

I emailed the one Nike employee, Ben Kirschner, who was mentioned in the news story about the shoe, and got no response. For good measure I emailed Nike’s PR department and they too seemed to have better things to do than justify their decision to legitimize a flagrantly criminal activity.

If you’re a motocrosser who lives in the Northeast and you’ve had your dirt bike stolen, you’d have to wonder, how is creating a running shoe for these guys different than creating one for purse-snatchers?

I get it; there’s a lot of criminals in the NFL, the NBA, etc., and no shortage of athletes with sneaker deals have gone on to appear in mug shots. Sneaker makers have also sponsored rappers who glamorize drug and sexual abuse. But football, basketball, and hip hop are not inherently illegal. This is.

As a marketing decision, tying Nike to the 12 O’Clock Boys is a step into a grey area. But what really surprised me about the choice was, Nike’s legal team should’ve seen this as a black-and-white issue. Not in the Black Lives Matter sense, but in the black print on white paper, legal liability sense.

To be clear, the shoe is not an all-new design, it’s just a styling job on the existing SF-AF1 platform; Kirschner, who SneakerNews called the shoe’s ‘designer’, is a marketing guy at Nike, not a product guy.

But do this mental experiment with me: Imagine some Nike marketing guy pitching a new Antifa-branded riot vest, that is just one of the company’s existing fleece vests, but restyled to look like a tactical bullet-proof vest, with a screenprinted outline of a Glock on it. The legal department would go ape-shit.

I can hear some lawyer doing a spit take with his coffee. “What happens when someone wearing it gets shot?”

By describing the 12 O’Clock Boys shoe as heat-resistant, in order to withstand engine heat, and with toe material that’s resistant to shifter abrasion – to say nothing of printing an image of a wheelying dirt biker and the words ‘Raise it up’ on the shoe – Nike is implying that this shoe is appropriate moto-wear. I don’t care that the star of the movie only wore a backwards ball cap as head protection.

There are a bunch of serious moto people at Nike’s HQ in Portland. So the company could have designed a proper moto boot – it chose not to. Instead, Nike’s opening itself up to a lawsuit from the first guy who breaks an ankle or rips off his toes between his chain and sprocket.

Look… If Nike ever seriously got into moto, it would suck for Dainese, Alpinestars, Sidi, Icon, Fox and the rest of ’em. (Actually it would be great for one of those companies, because Nike would acquire one of ’em as a way to enter the market – MG) But it would be the best thing to happen to motorcycling since Honda’s ‘Nicest People’ campaign.

If Nike really got into moto, it would bring mega sponsorship and technical resources to the table, but mostly it would bring the kind of marketing clout that shapes and influences our whole culture.

Instead we got, “Raise it up.” Oh well. It makes it awkward for me to admit that I think the shoes are kind’a cool.


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