Inside the Complicated World of the NCAA's Rare and Expensive Air Jordans

Air Jordans are made for such NCAA schools as Oregon, Michigan, and North Carolina, but how does all of this happen and how do the sneakers make their way to the resale market?

PE Jordans
Complex Original

Air Jordan PEs made for the University of Oregon and Michigan. Sneakers courtesy of Stadium Goods. Image via Complex Original/David Cabrera

PE Jordans

Kenny Farr never knows when the most coveted piece of equipment at the University of Oregon will show up. All the equipment manager for the Ducks football team knows is that when Nike’s VP of Design, Tinker Hatfield, asks for a size run of players and staff that something big is about to happen. The next call he’ll get from Hatfield’s Beaverton office will alert him to the impending arrival of a truck stocked with boxes of Oregon-specific player-edition (often referred to as PE) sneakers. On that day, players and sneaker fans alike delight.

With so few pairs made of the highly publicized, not-for-retail-sale designs, resale prices match the scarcity. These shoes can fetch thousands of dollars on sites across the country, whether for that “Duckman” look from Oregon, the relatively new maize-and-blue options designed for Michigan, or an old standby: Carolina Blue. There’s been such a buzz around Oregon sneakers, that Nike has released several versions to the public, including an Air Foamposite One.

Hatfield launched the craze in 2011, working with former Oregon football player Jaison Williams to “Oregon-ize” the Air Jordan IX in all-black ahead of Oregon’s National Championship football game against Auburn. The next two years saw two more Oregon x Jordan designs and 2014 stepped it up even more with four different Oregon designs, giving basketball their own colorways along the way.

Air Jordan 9 Oregon

“It really is a Tinker thing,” Farr tells Complex. “Tinker is the one who drives that. I really never know year to year [what will happen]. We are already working on 2018, and I don’t know if he is going to do one for us or if he won’t.” If history serves as a guide, not only will Oregon football have a new Jordan, but they’ll likely have two. As will basketball, volleyball, and track.

Hatfield, once a track and field athlete for the Ducks, created this entire push simply out of his love for Oregon and his desire for them to look better than anyone else. “I felt like there was something missing,” Tinker says about the travel gear, according to Nike’s SNKRS site. “It wasn’t really that exciting and no one was talking about it and I felt like there could be this excitement driven by leveraging the history of the Jordan Brand, even though we aren’t talking about a Jordan school, but just the history of the brand and Michael Jordan himself.”

As with anything associated with the NCAA, the rules surrounding school player-edition Jordans gets a bit tricky. A pair of Oregon basketball players—Ben Carter and Dominic Artis—were each busted in 2013 for selling their pairs for $1,800, and subsequently suspended by the team for violating NCAA rule which covers athletes receiving extra benefits. Since then, Oregon instituted a new policy for handling everything from Jordans to Nike travel sweats.

oregon air jordans 1

Each week the players wear team-issued travel gear. Farr issues the entire outfit—sweats and sneakers—to the students on Thursday or Friday for the weekend, and then students turn the gear back in on Sunday or Monday. “We have a few different options, so they don’t lose stuff,” Farr says. While the system ensures players all match perfectly at all times (no lost pants or sweaters, for example), the rules on the PE Jordans go a step further, as the custom sneakers stay locked down in at the University of Oregon until a player graduates college or uses up their eligibility. Oregon did have one exception where it released the shoes before their allotted time when, after receiving Tinker’s Vs, Oregon sent them to a local company and laser-engraved player names on each, also adding a gold “O.” Since the shoes were so personalized Oregon made an exception and let the players keep those.

“There are guys who graduated and after the bowl game came in the next day and they had five pairs of Jordans worn only a couple of days,” Farr says. “There is a lot of temptation for a 19-year-old when somebody is offering you quite a bit of money for shoes off your feet. We want to help them out.”

Dave Ridpath, associate professor of sports business at Ohio University and an NCAA compliance expert, says that Jordan sneakers do offer unique gray areas within the NCAA guidelines. The governing body doesn’t have any rules on how many pairs of warm ups or sets of travel clothes schools can assign to players, allowing the issuing of items such as Jordan sneakers. The NCAA cares, he says, mainly that the gifting is equitable across sports and that students don’t start cashing in on the gear. “If you are selling those things for profit, that could be a compliance [issue],” he says. “Having students turn travel gear back in is a way to regulate that.”

Ridpath calls the check-in process a good practice followed by some of the largest schools with the most amount of gear. (Michigan and Carolina both declined comment for this article.) Even with the restrictions locking down players from selling gear before they have exhausted their eligibility, PE sneakers still manage to get out each year.

Mark Wahlberg Oregon Air Jordan V

John McPheters, co-founder and CEO of Stadium Goods, says the college PEs prove popular, not only driving a lot of traffic to sites featuring the listings, but also fetching big-ticket prices. “The Michigan and Oregon ones really stand out because they have a strong batch of special shoes that have been made,” McPheters says. “There is a lot of interest around the University of Carolina too because of the Jordan color.”

The record at Stadium Goods for college PEs was a Michigan Jordan V that sold for $20,000. A perusal through everything from Stadium Goods to eBay shows listings for a variety of school PEs in the thousands of dollars per pair, whether $5,100 for a Duckman V, $2,300 for an Oregon 14 in grey or $6,000 for a Michigan Jordan V.

There’s not a lot of options for landing a pair of these sneakers. Being an athlete at one of the schools in the PE mix offers one opportunity, as does being a celeb— Mark Wahlberg and DJ Khaled, for example, have posted school PE gifts on social media—but a select few close to the athletic department can also get in on the exclusives.

Air Jordan 5 Michigan

Farr says a Tinker shipment usually numbers between 175 and 200 pairs, enough for the approximately 100 players, roughly 50 staff and at least 25 VIPs. Plus, the brand has its own list of VIPs they divvy sneakers up to. Basketball colorways—each year at Oregon the Jordan models across sports have remained consistent, but the colorways have switched up, such as a year ago a grey XIV for football and track and an olive-green version for basketball and volleyball and this past year the XIII in greens and white for football and white and grey for basketball—work the same, just with fewer total numbers.

When pairs pop up for sale shortly after the shoe releases to schools, you can most likely blame an employee or VIP. “Tinker does a really good job of trying to communicate that if you are on the list to receive something, it is really special and he wants you to hold onto it,” Farr says. “But it depends on if you are into sneakers or not, or need to sell them for some reason.”

Plus, as Farr adds, some staff or VIP may gift their pair and then the recipient may decide to sell. Technically there’s no rule against staff selling gear, but if it did get out that a staffer was selling gear, they likely wouldn’t make the list the next time around. Tinker himself says, “There’s some responsibility put on the people who want these shoes to have to be a part of the program.”

Oregon Air Jordan 14

McPheters says Stadium Goods runs background on whatever they sell making sure everything checks out, which helps the site become a destination for people searching for hard-to-find items such as school PEs.

While each of the styles comes with a “baked-in audience” in the form of school fans, McPheters says he sees collectors of all sorts clamoring for the shoes. “It is any possible scenario you can imagine,” he says. “It could be collectors of everything, a particular silhouette of Jordan or a specific team. People just wanting something very rare and sought after and have no allegiances other than that.”

He doesn’t see the interest waning any time soon.

Portland resident Andy Maletis qualifies as one of the most avid collectors of Oregon PE Jordans. While he hasn’t ever purchased a pair on a resale site, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t spent handsomely for his 11 pairs of Oregon exclusives, none more special than the “Duckman” Vs with “gorgeous” apple green—the same pair Farr remembers sending to LeBron James.

Originally from Beaverton, the home of Nike, Maletis grew up loving Tinker Hatfield designs. His interest in the school PEs started when he was in high school and a special Oregon colorway of LeBron’s shoe came out. “I was obsessed with those and just the concept of Nike doing something so special like that for Oregon,” he tells Complex. “I remember thinking if I were a five-star athlete, those would have sold me on going to Oregon.” During his senior year at Oregon, the Jordan “BCS IXs” came out.

Maletis has added the BCS IXs to his collection, largely because his family is “very involved with the athletic department.” He has also purchased these sneakers as a way to support the athletic department during Oregon fundraising auctions. “That is where I’ve spent the most money on pairs,” he says, “but I don’t consider that purchasing. It is really donating to my alma mater and I get a pair of shoes in return.”

Maletis says that while he adores the Oregon PEs—he views them as a Jordan x Oregon collab, a mash-up of two of his favorite entities for a “match made in heaven”—he doesn’t believe they signify the most coveted type of sneakers to collect.