(The Root) — Some folks behind the steering wheels of luxury sedans can barely keep food on the table. Some folks who live in gorgeous mini-mansions can barely pay their other bills. Some folks who regularly buy expensive clothes, make expensive hair-care appointments and drink expensive cups of coffee can barely make ends meet.
Is that the fault of the automakers, builders, designers, stylists and baristas? Of course not. Likewise, no one should blame Nike and LeBron James if their exorbitantly priced sneakers land on the feet of people who really can't afford them.
A shock wave roiled pop culture this week when the Wall Street Journal reported that Nike's priciest version of James' next basketball shoe is expected to retail for $315. After a day of furious reaction from some quarters, Nike said the reported price is inaccurate, while pointing out that James' main shoe will retail for $180, with another signature shoe offered at $120.
Even if the high-end, technology-laden model comes in at $275-$290, that's still too costly for most of the teens and youngsters who'll clamor for the shoes. Critics howled at Nike and James for having the nerve to market such expensive sneakers, especially given the current economic climate.
"To release such an outrageously overpriced product while the nation is struggling to overcome an unemployment crisis is insensitive at best," National Urban League President Marc Morial said in a statement. "It represents twisted priorities and confused values."
His aim is true, but he hit the wrong target. The twisted priorities and confused values belong to whoever irresponsibly buys the shoes or uses violence to obtain them.
We've seen this play out before, though at lower price points. In February an unruly crowd lusting for Nike's $220 Foamposite Galaxy at a Florida mall drew the presence of police in riot gear. In December the release of $180 retro Air Jordans prompted an outbreak of madness, mayhem and melees across the country. Over the years, more than a few people have been beaten and robbed — or shot and killed — for their name-brand sneakers.
But instead of condemning acts of violence and imploring personal responsibility, some critics want to assail James' character and suggest that his name shouldn't be on such an expensive sneaker. "We hope LeBron will draw upon his newfound maturity, place a phone call to [Nike Chairman] Phil Knight and say he won't be a party to a $275 shoe," writes the Philadelphia Daily News wrote in an editorial on Friday.
The editorial's headline read: "What the World Doesn't Need Now Is a $300 Sneaker." You can say that about a lot of things. But more than what the world needs, capitalism thrives on what folks want and the highest amount they're willing to pay.
According to SportsOneSource, a market-research tracking firm, sales of sneakers that retail for more than $100 are up 30 percent on the year. Sales of basketball shoes that cost more than $100 are up 50 percent. Analyst Matt Powell told ESPN that the price for James' Nike+ tech version — which would be a limited edition — likely will cost closer to $290 than the reported $315.
Whether they're $100, $200 or $300, the principle remains the same, and we need to drill this lesson into our young people: Genuine self-esteem isn't based on material possessions; it's based on values and character traits.
Marketers are in the business of tricking consumers into believing that "things" lead to happiness. If $300 sneakers are a huge success, that's the market speaking. Don't blame Nike and James for listening.
What they hear is up to everyone else.