Three weeks of NFL action, two AFC superstars and Kanye West’s partnership with Adidas was the recipe needed to have all the tongues on social media wagging.
Cleats. They’re worn by everyone in the National Football League. These grass-grabbing spikes allow a player to move around with a sense of traction and stability.
As a league that salivates over the very prospect of obedience, the NFL dictates what a player can and cannot wear, all the way down to footwear choices. So when Kanye West's Yeezy Boost cleats appeared on a handful of NFL players, it was no surprise the league frowned upon the use of equipment that wasn't on the league's pre-approved list.
Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller was the first to rock a pair of Yeezy Boost 750s during pregame warm-ups against the Carolina Panthers in Week 1. He gushed on Instagram about the spikes, a gift from West and Team Adidas, but didn’t take them out onto the field for a full run.
A few days later, Houston Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins broke the seal and wore a pair of Yeezy Boost 350s against the Bears in the form of live-game action.
The NFL wasn’t impressed. Hopkins was fined $6,000, prompting him to tell reporters he would continue to wear the spikes only if "Kanye wants to pay the fine," per ESPN's Sarah Barshop.
To even begin to understand why these cleats became such a big deal, you first have to go back to West’s rise in the world of sneakers.
West has become this generation’s Michael Jordan. His line of sneakers has taken control of the industry, similar to Jordan back in the 1980s and '90s. Any new model of Yeezy Boosts has become synonymous with turning digital storefronts into piles of mush on release days.
Take Eastbay, a worldwide supplier of athletic gear, for example. The company’s site has been rendered almost unusable, as John Kim of Sneaker News reported, each time a new sneaker surfaces.
The exclusivity of owning a pair has become a bigger part of the sneaker’s narrative than the shoe itself. And securing these kicks is an act in futility at this point, unless you’re willing to pay way above market price.
StockX, a platform created to shed a light on resale prices for sneakers, has pairs of the original Yeezy Boost 750 going for $2,750. The shoe retails for $350.
Since West joined forces with Adidas in 2013, the company has experienced tremendous growth. John Kell of Fortune reported how North American fiscal sales jumped 23 percent from the second quarter of 2015 to the present day. A bigger gain than Nike realized in the same timeframe.
All of those sales totals can’t be directly correlated to the Yeezy Boost line—Adidas has done an excellent job bringing fresh silhouettes to life. But nevertheless, the Kanye West effect is real, in terms of design and sales.
West’s sneakers are not merely borne of fashion. The inclusion of Boost technology, a foamy, lightweight material used to re-engineer the sole of the shoe to provide maximum comfort and support, turned the 350 model into a wearable, functional gym shoe. And the Boost platform has become a soapbox for Adidas.
With West blurring the lines between fashion and performance, it’s no wonder why he’s made the leap to sports.
In addition to football, Adidas is planning to unleash Yeezy into the world of basketball, baseball and soccer, according to Nice Kicks creative director Nick DePaula, via Brendan Dunne of Sole Collector. Week 1 of the NFL season showed the expansion into sports in full effect, with the shoes making a very public debut.
Similar to most of the Yeezy sneakers, news about these cleats seemingly came out of nowhere. In fact, it was part of a brilliant marketing ploy laid out by Adidas. Acquiring an on-field rendition of the shoes, which have become a hype-magnet and an instant elixir for conversation, carried over seamlessly to sneaker junkies and more importantly, sports fans.
Using cleats as a form of self-expression isn’t anything new. Pregame rituals include a smorgasbord of custom cleats. New York Giants pass-catchers Odell Beckham Jr. and Victor Cruz recently both wore a pair of spikes which paid tribute to those lost on September 11, 2001.
Though they weren’t fined, Beckham Jr. was expecting otherwise, per ESPN’s Jordan Raanan. "They'll probably fine me," Beckham said. "They fine me for everything. They fine me for smiling."
Therein lies the issue. The league’s rules have pitted West against the NFL in a matter of a few weeks.
The NFL’s policy on footwear is pretty cut-and-dry: "Approved shoe styles will contain one team color, which must be the same for all players on a given team. A player may wear an unapproved standard football shoe style as long as the player tapes over the entire shoe to conform to his team’s selected dominant color."
At face value, the NFL’s actions would appear to deal a significant blow to the "Adidas x West" movement. Docking a player's pay for violating the league's strict rules on conformity effectively put Yeezy cleats on the back burner.
However, on September 15, four days after Hopkins wore the Boost 350s, Adidas gave consumers an opportunity to get their hands on a pair. The spikes quickly sold out, proving the Yeezy marketing scheme and overall popularity of the design successfully carried over to sports fans.
This has set up an intriguing battle. Adidas now realizes these cleats can be a booming success. The NFL has pushed back. We reached out to Adidas and the NFL, but both sides decided to remain silent, which is telling.
In the event Adidas decides to push forward with this endeavor and make Yeezy cleats a priority, the NFL will be faced with a decision: Let athletes wear them without being subject to a fine, or give Adidas a unique marketing opportunity akin to Nike’s Air Ship, or in historical terms, the Air Jordan I, of this generation.
For those unfamiliar with the legendary tale, Nike’s Air Ship was the first sneaker Michael Jordan wore as a rookie. It was barred from the hardwood due to a custom pair being laced with a black-and-red colorway—a violation of the NBA’s dress code at the time. Nike’s marketing team quickly capitalized on the ban, turning the Air Jordan I into an unforgettable commercial.
The NBA eventually lifted its ban, allowing Nike and Jordan to soak up the credit.
From Adidas’ point of view, it could take Hopkins’ advice and pay the fines. What better way is there to rattle the system than turning the NFL’s currency grab into a marketing scheme?
Using Hopkins’ punishment as a measure, Adidas would have to shovel out a grand total of $78,000 per player for 13 weeks of regular-season action. Seems worth it when you’re talking about sales and hype.
If Adidas were to get the NFL to bend by mirroring Nike's approach to the Air Jordan I, that would make West a new sort of trailblazer—the first to force the NFL to alter its rigid fashion structure. Talk about becoming the MJ of this generation.
On the field, the shoe did its job and held up structurally. Hopkins caught five passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in the 350s, while Miller's representatives told us, although he didn’t use them in the game, he "loved" the Yeezy Boost 750s.
Even Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman posted a shot of his Yeezy Boost 350 cleats on Instagram.
It looks like the NFL will continue to fine players who lean toward the Yeezy side of the aisle. Maybe this is why athletes have stopped wearing the cleats. Either the financial divide isn’t worth it, or the spikes aren’t easily accessible—remember, Adidas gifted the spikes to Miller and Hopkins.
At the moment, the NFL is a Yeezy-free wasteland. Other than Week 1 of the season, we haven’t seen an athlete sport the banned spikes, giving Goodell a temporary sense of victory.
Perhaps that will change with time, as the company could always adapt its cleats to align more closely with the NFL’s guidelines next offseason. Besides, collegiate players and high school recruits have brought the Yeezy cleats to life, showing no signs of letting up.
Alabama Crimson Tide commit, and 247Sports' top-ranked high school player in the nation, Najee Harris, is one of many to stunt in the 350s, per D1Bound Nation. He is out here proving the Yeezy sports wave is here to stay.
We’re watching Kanye West vs. Roger Goodell in a battle for fashion, expression and the future of NFL footwear. Today, Goodell is king. But as Adidas continues to forge on, Yeezy’s unprecedented popularity might push this narrative in a different direction.
All product information and release dates via Adidas News, unless noted otherwise. All quotes obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.