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A newly-released sneaker, in Dunbar’s maroon and gold, is a stylish homage to arguably the greatest high school basketball team ever.
“The team from Charm City made history that hasn’t been broken since,” says an online pitch for the $110 Adidas high-top creation tied to the East Baltimore school that won 60 straight games during two storied seasons between 1981-83.
Social media promotions display Baltimore scenes and close-ups of the limited-edition, leather shoe, which has “Baltimore Boys” stamped on the ankle strap of the ’80s throwback Forum model. That’s the name of the sneaker and a 2017 documentary about the powerhouse Dunbar teams of future NBAers Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate and the late Reggie Lewis.
Conspicuously absent in the promos or other marketing are any of the former players themselves.
Now, some of them say they feel shut out of their own history.
“It’s just sad,” said Bogues, the 5-foot-3 former Poets guard who went on to play at Wake Forest and 14 seasons in the NBA. “This is about us being disrespected.”
Bogues and Wingate said DTLR Villa — the Hanover-based urban apparel company formerly known as Downtown Locker Room that marketed the shoe — should have collaborated with the players on the rollout of a shoe that their basketball abilities of long ago helped popularize.
“If it wasn’t for us, this wouldn’t be going on right now — no shoe, no Downtown Locker Room promoting it, none of that,” said Wingate, who starred at Georgetown after high school and also went on to the NBA. “I would love to be a part of that financially.”
The players and their representatives say a partnership with DTLR or Adidas could have taken various forms, financial or otherwise, in which the athletes, now in their mid-50s, would have become ambassadors for the shoe.
“It’s not so much about the compensation, it’s about the respect,” Bogues said. “There’s no way I’m going to sign any one of those shoes [now].”
Adidas had no comment, spokesman Rich Efrus said.
DTLR said in a written statement that it tried to negotiate a deal with Bogues “in hopes of establishing a partnership to commemorate the historic Dunbar basketball team and celebrate the release of this locally-inspired shoe.”
But no agreement was reached.
According to emails obtained by The Baltimore Sun, Bogues and Wingate were asked by DTLR early this year if they would personalize the marketing campaign by recording voiceovers “sharing some special moments of that time.”
Bogues’ representatives inquired whether this was a “paid opportunity,” but the retailer didn’t answer.
A few months later, DTLR’s community outreach coordinator emailed Bogues’ representatives saying it “decided to go a different route with the content” and wouldn’t need the players’ participation after all.
Before concluding that June 10 email, the coordinator asked for Bogues’ shoe size so they could “bless Muggsy with a pair” of the new sneakers.
Bogues told The Sun he declined the offer.
“No, I didn’t want their one pair of sneakers. The damage was already done,” the player said.
Just 600 of the shoes were made available July 2, and they sold out quickly, according to DTLR. The retailer said it held a community “cleanup” event the same day in the neighborhood surrounding its East Monument Street store.
The players’ concerns represent a twist on a longstanding dispute over whether amateur athletes should be allowed to profit from their names, images and likenesses. The NCAA bowed to pressure and began July 1 to allow college players to cash in on their fame with endorsement deals and much more.
Like other Marylanders, current and former high school athletes “have certain rights in their names, images and likenesses that ordinarily cannot be usurped for commercial value without their consent,” said Alan Rifkin, an adjunct sports law professor at the University of Maryland law school.
Rifkin, who is not involved in the Dunbar dispute, said determining violations is case-specific, and the answer is not always a clear “slam dunk.”
The marketing campaign does not reference or allude to specific Dunbar players. The shoe itself displays a number of generic Baltimore references such as the numbers “410″ — the city’s area code since 1991, nearly a decade after the storied Poets team’s dominance.
A YouTube promotional video, set to music, shows an unidentified player walking down Baltimore streets to a basketball court, where he laces up the mostly gold shoes.
Neither Bogues nor other former players have alleged legal issues with the shoe or its promotions. Rather, Bogues called the company’s approach “distasteful.”
Companies in general should be wary of alienating players in today’s sports climate, said Dionne Koller, director of the University of Baltimore’s Center for Sport and the Law.
“A marketing campaign that appears calibrated to work around players and their rights will, in my view, do more harm than good, even if the company is legally not obligated to compensate the players,” Koller said.