Adidas terminates partnership with Kanye

Philissa Cramer, JTA

(JTA) — The athletic wear company Adidas is ending its relationship with Kanye West, days after the rapper boasted that he could “say antisemitic s— and they cannot drop me.”

The brand had faced growing criticism of its continued relationship with West, who is known as Ye, as other brands affiliated with West broke ties with him. Adidas reportedly brings in $2 billion a year through its Yeezy brand, accounting for about 10% of the company’s revenue.


Now, the brand will stop making Yeezy products and stop all payments to West and his companies, Adidas announced in a statement on Tuesday. The company said it expected to lose up to $250 million in revenue in the next three months.

“Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. Ye’s recent comments and actions have been unacceptable, hateful and dangerous, and they violate the company’s values of diversity and inclusion, mutual respect and fairness,” the company said the statement. “After a thorough review, the company has taken the decision to terminate the partnership with Ye immediately.”

The decision came shortly after a U.S.-based marketing executive at the German company criticized her employer for not acting in response to the antisemitism espoused by West, who vowed on social media to “go death con 3 on Jewish people” earlier this month. It was the latest in mounting public pressure on the company, whose founders were Nazis and which produced weapons for the Nazis during World War II.

“As a member of the Jewish community, I can no longer stay silent on behalf of the brand that employs me,” Sarah Camhi, a director of trade marketing, wrote on LinkedIn on Monday night. “Not saying anything, is saying everything.”

The brand had announced weeks ago that it was putting its West ties “under review” but had said nothing publicly since. Camhi wrote that Adidas had not addressed West’s antisemitism internally to employees either.

“We have dropped adidas athletes for using steroids and being difficult to work with but are unwilling to denounce hate speech, the perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes and blatant racism by one of our top brand partners,” she wrote. “We need to do better as a brand. We need to do better for our employees and we need to do better for our communities. Until adidas takes a stand, I will not stand with adidas.”

Camhi, whose LinkedIn account says she has worked at Adidas since June 2019, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Adidas said in its announcement that it expected the decision to result in a short-term loss for the company, which has already been struggling. It also said that it retains ownership over past designs in the Yeezy line and would share more in a call with company stakeholders next month.

The fashion tastemakers Balenciaga and Vogue have announced they will no longer be working with him. Hollywood talent giant CAA has dropped him, and a planned documentary about him has been scrapped.

The Anti-Defamation League had mounted a growing public pressure campaign to get the company to cut ties with West, and celebrities including Kat Dennings, David Schwimmer and Busy Phillips boosted it. Other celebrities, including Reese Witherspoon and West’s ex-wife Kim Kardashian, have used their social platforms to condemn antisemitism without specifically referencing Adidas or West; Jessica Seinfeld, the Jewish cookbook author and wife to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, spurred a viral Instagram movement by encouraging her followers to share a post reading “I support my Jewish friends and the Jewish people.”

Here is an abbreviated version of Adidas’ history with Nazis, Jews and the superstar rapper who now goes by Ye.

Does Adidas really have Nazi origins?

Yes, but its founding pre-dates the Nazis’ rise. The company was founded in 1924 in Weimar-era Germany as the Gebrüder Dassler Schuhfabrik (Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory), or Geda for short, by cobbler brothers Adolf (“Adi”) and Rudolf Dassler. 

Based in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach, the Dassler brothers quickly made a name for themselves by pioneering some of the earliest spiked shoes – drilled through with nails to help runners on uneven terrain.

On May 1, 1933, with the company’s fortunes on the rise and Hitler having just assumed power in Germany, the Dassler brothers formally joined the Nazi party, according to journalist Barbara Smit’s book “Sneaker Wars,” a history of Adidas

The Nazis embraced sports as a tool both to boost Germany’s public profile and to train its future armies of young men, so the pioneering shoe company fit nicely into their schema. Under Nazi rule, the Dasslers’ sneaker sales promptly exploded, and they grew the size of their company several times over.

During the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympic games, orchestrated by Hitler in an attempt to demonstrate Aryan athletic supremacy on the world stage, many of the German athletes sported Dassler shoes.

But so did Black American track and field star Jesse Owens, whose very presence at the games was a thumb in the eye of Hitler’s race theories. Even so, Owens was popular with both Germans and Americans, and Adi Dassler was able to convince him to don the company’s spiked shoes during his medal ceremony. The subsequent exposure helped the shoes make inroads among Allied markets after the war, even in spite of their German associations.

How devoted to the Nazis were the Dassler brothers?

Rudolf was a more ardent devotee of Nazi ideology than Adi, according to Smit, but both brothers carried their party membership cards and signed off their letters with “Heil Hitler.” 

During the war, the brothers’ shoe factories were converted into munitions factories for the Nazi military. (Other German shoemakers would test their products on forced laborers in concentration camps.) Rudolf was called to join the war effort, but went AWOL as part of his bid to maintain control of the company from his brother, whom he became convinced was scheming against him. 

According to Der Spiegel, some American troops were poised to destroy the Herzogenaurach factory, which employed some forced laborers, in April 1945 — before Adi’s wife Käthe approached them and convinced them that the building was only being used to make sneakers. It worked.

The factory was saved, and when the U.S. Air Force took over the Nazis’ Herzogenaurauch air base, American troops who were fans of Jesse Owens bought Dassler shoes and helped spread the word about the company back home.

What happened to Adidas after the war?

Ironically, the end of World War II was only the beginning of the fight between the Dassler brothers, each of whom (along with their wives) tried to wrest the shoe empire away from the other. 

When Germany entered its postwar denazification period, Allies forced the town of Herzogenaurach — including, presumably, the Dasslers and their factory employees — to watch documentary footage of the horrors visited upon Jews at Nazi concentration camps. Rudolf was also arrested, suspected of feeding information to the Gestapo, and briefly sent to a German prisoner-of-war camp for his role on the frontlines, but was freed one year later owing to the backlog of cases against POWs.

Meanwhile, Adi was accused of having actively aided and supported the Nazis during the war, but was able to put together a dossier of people — including the town’s mayor — to support his claim that he was far from a party loyalist. 

Among Adi’s claims, according to Smit: he had continued to work with Jewish leather traders later than many other Germans would do business with Jews. He also found a mayor from a neighboring town who claimed to be half-Jewish to say that Dassler had sheltered him on his property in the waning days of the war.

The siblings’ relationship suffered a permanent rift in 1949, leading Adi to form his own company as Adidas, while Rudolf went off to start rival sportswear company Puma. Both companies remain headquartered in Herzogenaurach, and the town’s residents remain bitterly divided over brand loyalty to this day (though Adidas, currently the No. 2 global sportswear company behind Nike, seems to have come out ahead).

What kind of relationship does Adidas have with Jews today?

The company calls Adolf Dassler its “founding father,” but it remains tight-lipped about its founders’ Nazi associations. On its website, Adidas’ own official history defines its pre-1949 years simply as “only the start of our story,” without any references to Nazis or Owens.

Jewish athletes have worked with the company in the decades since the war. In 1972, at Adidas’ suggestion, American Jewish Olympic swimmer Mark Spitz carried a pair of their shoes to the podium during his medal ceremony. And last year, Adidas Israel built a campaign around a haredi Orthodox marathon runner

Adidas has also occasionally waded into geopolitical waters with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2012 the company was boycotted by Arab states for sponsoring the Jerusalem Marathon, which ran through disputed territory. And in 2018, the company ended its sponsorship of the Israel Football Association, a development celebrated as a victory by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement because the association had included teams representing Israeli settlements. (Puma took over the sponsorship.)

Adidas did not respond to a JTA request for comment for this story.

So what’s next?

Adidas’ partnership with West is nearly a decade old, and extremely lucrative. His Yeezy line of sneakers and other products brought the company an estimated $2 billion in revenue last year, accounting for around 10% of its total revenue, according to The Washington Post. (West previously had an arrangement with Nike but was unhappy with it.)

Despite the “corporate social responsibility” movement that many companies have embraced in the aftermath of 2020’s racial justice protests, the idea of corporations like Adidas having a sense of social responsibility remains elusive, according to Josh Hunt, author of “University of Nike: How Corporate Cash Bought American Higher Education.”

“Sneaker companies, like all corporations, are amoral,” Hunt told JTA. “They will do what is unseemly until it becomes unprofitable, whether that means exploiting forced labor in Xinjiang or collaborating with Nazis.”

But Jews love sneakers, too. One of the most prominent Jewish sneakerheads is Rabbi Yoël Mendel, a Paris-based member of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement who goes by “Rabbi Sneakers” online. 

On his Instagram page, Mendel uses sneakers as a tool for teaching Torah and shows off a variety of shoes and sports apparel-themed kippahs, including plenty of Adidas gear. (He praised one pair of leather-free Adidas shoes because he could wear them on Yom Kippur.)

“What can I say,” Mendel told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “They make great, comfortable shoes.” 

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