There is a new post-game ritual taking place in the National Basketball Association. Star players are giving away the shoes that they wore for the game, mostly to kids. These transactions are usually caught on camera and put online where the videos have gone viral. Players such as Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell and Stephen Curry–all who have their own individualized shoes–have performed this ritual regularly leaving lucky and shocked fans holding this prized artifact.
I want to suggest that these transactions entail a modern sacred object (these shoes) traversing a boundary that keeps segregated a sacred realm from a profane one, and in the process, the shoes attain a higher sacred value than before. Sociologist Emile Durkheim defined sacred objects as “things set apart and forbidden” as authorized by the community who deems them so. Shoes worn by star players are mundane objects in one sense–they are after all just leather and rubber. But they are set apart when worn by the player from the rest of the world, and therefore forbidden from consumption by anyone else.
Moreover, game-worn shoes have absorbed and applied pressure to the foot that leaves the floor when jumping and stopping on a dime when needed; the uniform itself is minimally associated with performance in basketball. Add to this the recent change in NBA policy regarding shoes. Players are no longer required to wear shoes “restricted to being either 51 percent white or black, plus a minimal team color accent.” Shoes can now be designed by certain NBA players who have individual contracts with shoe companies and hence are being used as fashion displays that reflect their own style.
The line between play on the field or court and the fans is thick and high, therefore the passing of items in either direction carries import. The “Lambeau Leap” which is performed by Green Bay Packers who jump into the first couple of rows after scoring a touchdown is special for the fans. Fans do not enjoy the same treatment when crossing onto the field of play. Reaching out to touch players or extending onto the baseball field to interfere with a player are chided. In Durkheimian terms, the honored segregation of players and fans communicates social agreement around what constitutes trespassing on sacred ground. Or the profane cannot intrude on the sacred, but the sacred can grace the profane with its presence.
Though fans come away with souvenirs from the field of play quite frequently. Foul balls and pieces of broken bats from the baseball diamond routinely sail into the stands. Stray pucks often fly above the glass that encloses a hockey rink for fans to keep. Yet these are accidental gifts with no personal intention behind the gifting. On the other hand, a football player may hand the game ball to a fan after a touchdown or a golfer will toss a ball to a spectator after finishing a round. These transactions are intentional, but lack the personal stamp that, say a jersey or a shoe, would bear.
That said, this act of gift-giving, when captured on video (which it almost always is) and spread virally, acts as a free and extremely powerful commercial for the shoe. And the fact that young fans are the typical recipients, this “commercial” has the potential to tap into the most coveted consumer demographic: young people looking for a long-standing identity brand. Couple this with the good PR for the athlete and the shoe transfer seems a win-win for all involved.
Yet as Gordon Lynch argues, “public media are the primary institutional structure in which forms of the sacred are experienced, reproduced and contested.” And when the reproduction of the image of an athlete handing over his shoes occurs millions of times across social media, it is experienced cleanly and often reproduced again through sharing.
Still, Durkheim based his sacred/profane concept on observing Aboriginal peoples in Australia over 100 years ago. How can a shoe owned and designed by a pro athlete and its transfer to a fan be sacred in a way that allows Durkheim’s theory to hold up? After arguing that restaurant receipts and library books hold a Durkheimian sacred value in the modern world, the authors of a recent essay conclude that sacred rituals are no longer brokered by institutions but by voluntary, cooperative, and therefore moral agreements between parties. How much more sacred is the gifting of a game-worn shoe across a respected threshold than the receipt of a receipt?
Therefore, the sacralization process here is ratcheted up because of, not despite, the media presentation of the shoe giveaway. Indeed, Durkheim identified the individual and private property as the sacred in the modern West, given the inviolable protections that each enjoy. The handing over of precious private property in the form of a shoe from one individual to another makes it the new private property of the fan. The capture of these scenes on digital media that helps the branding of the athlete and his footwear, for better or worse, enhances the sacredness of the ritual.
What’s in a shoe? Apparently more than a foot.