9 Times Athletic Brands Have Drawn Criticism for Cultural Insensitivity

As with any industry, the athletic footwear sector isn’t without controversy.

Despite their best intentions, a number of companies in the past several years have come under fire for green-lighting products that send questionable messages, some of which have been deemed ignorant, insensitive or even perceived as cultural appropriation.

While the majority of these releases were eventually pulled from shelves, a few continue to be stocked in stores, with the backlash mounting by those most affected.

Here, FN rounds up some of the cases that prove there is such a thing as bad publicity.


Nike found itself in hot water in January after its Air Max 270 sneaker invited criticism with a design that some have said resembled the Arabic word for god, “Allah.” The logo, which was printed on the sole, was perceived as “disrespectful” by Saiqa Noreen, who launched a Change.org petition claiming that the name should not be printed on the bottom of a shoe. “We urge Nike to recall this blasphemous and offensive shoe and all products with the design logo resembling the word Allah from worldwide sales immediately,” the online appeal read.

Nike Air Max 270
Nike Air Max 270

It’s not the first time the Swoosh sparked outrage among members of the Muslim community. In 1997, the brand recalled about 38,000 pairs of sneakers gifted with such epithets as “Air Melt,” “Air Grill,” “Air B-Que” and “Air Bakin” after some observers expressed concern that the flamelike logo on its sneakers was similar to the Arabic word “Allah.” The Beaverton, Ore., brand also donated $50,000 to an Islamic elementary school in the United States.

Separately, ahead of St. Patrick’s Day in 2012, Nike released its SB Black and Tan Quickstrike sneaker, which critics associated with the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force from the 1920s, a group of recruits that became known for its attacks on civilians during Ireland’s War of Independence. The shoes had been introduced as part of a series of beer-themed sneakers, including the Nike SB Dunk High “Guinness.”

And in 2016, parallels were drawn between the sportswear giant’s Air Jordan XII sneaker and Japan’s Rising Sun Flag, which some people in East Asia consider offensive due to its former use by the Imperial Japanese military and its connection to Japan’s atrocities during World War II. According to The Korea Times, Sungshin Women’s University professor Seo Kyoung-duk wrote a letter addressed to Michael Jordan, Nike CEO Mark Parker and designer Tinker Hatfield. “I would like to encourage the executives to avoid making the same mistakes in the future by helping them realize their insensitivity, indifference and ignorance of historical facts,” the note read.


Designed to represent “Pharrell’s founding vision of energy, color and spirituality as a unifying force between peoples,” last year’s Adidas Originals x Pharrell Hu Holi Powder Dye collection, intended to honoring the ancient Hindu Festival of Holi in India, appeared to miss the mark, with some taking to social media to express their disappointment in the brand.

“A European company getting an American musician to market a line of apparel/footwear inspired by an Indian festival,” wrote one Twitter user. “Technically, this is cultural appropriation.” In a statement to FN, Adidas said, “Adidas Originals and Pharrell Williams created Hu as a global platform to inspire positive change. Hu was founded upon the principles of unity, equality, humanity and color, with an intention to explore humanity and celebrate diversity around the world.”

Pharrell Adidas Originals Holi
A look at Pharrell’s Holi-inspired collection with Adidas Originals.
CREDIT: Adidas

The Germany-headquartered manufacturer also had to scrap plans to sell its now-infamous shackle sneakers after many people, including civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, denounced the Jeremy Scott-designed shoes on the brand’s Facebook page in 2012. Inspired by the furry toy “My Pet Monster,” the high-top JS Roundhouse Mid featured an orange plastic cuff that many called out for its resemblance to one of the most prominent symbols of slavery. Adidas explained that the shoe “is nothing more than the designer Jeremy Scott’s outrageous and unique take on fashion and has nothing to do with slavery.”

Another controversial moment for the brand stemmed from its Barry McGee entry as part of an Adicolor pack in 2006. McGee, who is half Asian, included a caricature of the fictional character Ray Fong on the tongue of his Adidas Y1 HUF sneaker that some people thought stereotyped Asians. “The name Ray Fong came from my Uncle Ray Fong, who passed away over a decade ago. Keith (HUF) and I never thought the image was ‘racist,’ and I am sorry to those people who perceive it that way,” McGee said in a press release.


In 2002, Jewish groups including the Board of Deputies of British Jews slammed Umbro for its Zyklon running shoes — the same name for a cyanide-based pesticide that the Nazis used in extermination camps during the Holocaust. In a statement, the U.K.-based brand said, “We regret that there are people who are offended by the name. The naming of the shoe is purely coincidental and was not intended to communicate any connotations.” Although the word wasn’t emblazoned on the sneaker itself, it has been printed on the side of Umbro boxes since the style’s debut in 1999.


Puma withdrew a line of limited-edition National Day sneakers in 2011 after customers from the United Arab Emirates chastised the brand for its representation of the UAE flag on footwear that touches the ground and is therefore considered dirty in that country. In a statement, the German company apologized for the perceived cultural slight, explaining that its SpeedCat shoes, released to honor the 40th anniversary of the UAE, were not intended to upset or offend consumers.

Want more?

This Is How Men’s Sneakers Will Evolve in 2019

imbox Sponsored

Customer Experience, Revenue Stream and Sustainability Come Wrapped in an IMBOX

Sustainable, footwear protection technology company, IMBOX Protection, is bringing its in-store service to the U.S. market for increased foot traffic and basket size with a new revenue stream.
Learn More

Access exclusive content