The 2-6 Oakland Raiders play the 1-7 Kansas City Chiefs this weekend in a game significant only in the fashion statements made by the gridiron combatants. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American Football League, whose greatest success was its incorporation into the National Football League, the AFL’s original eight teams are wearing throwback uniforms for select games this season.
The Chiefs, for instance, will wear Texans uniforms when they take on the Raiders. After winning the AFL championship game in 1962, the Dallas Texans moved to Kansas City and became the Chiefs. Given that there is currently another team called the Texans based in Houston, and that the Chiefs hail from Kansas City and not Texas, the Chiefs playing as the “Texans” might disorient the casual fan.
This was especially so in week five, when the Chiefs played in vintage Texans uniforms — complete with an emblem of the state of Texas on their helmets — against the Dallas Cowboys (the very team that forced Lamar Hunt to move the Texans to Kansas City). History’s encroachment upon the present is confusing enough. The transient geography of NFL franchises has mucked up matters further.
The scene was even more surreal when the New York Jets played the Tennessee Titans in week three. In homage to their AFL incarnation as the Titans of New York, the Jets wore the blue and gold uniforms. Their opponents, the Tennessee Titans, paid tribute to their history as the Houston Oilers by sporting the old powder-blue with the derrick helmet insignia. In other words, the Jets, masquerading as the AFL’s Titans, played the current Titans, who masqueraded as the Houston Oilers. Comprende?
The New York Jets ditching their Big Green Machine imagery for blue and gold, or the Orange Crush sporting brown and yellow — Throwback uniforms for the San Diego Padres or Denver Broncos? — is enough to make viewers adjust their television sets. Nine times out of ten, a throwback conjures up tradition. This one undermines it. The throwback gimmick is less about honoring yesterday’s AFL than it is about today’s NFL merchandising.
The simplicity of static “home” and “away” jerseys have been overrun by a confusing array of alternate jerseys, old-time uniforms, and alterations to team apparel so frequent that have fans rushing to stores to update their almost-perennially out-of-date duds. It started innocently enough in 1994 as a way to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the NFL. The first sight of the Pittsburgh Steelers donning blue-and-yellow striped jerseys with tiny numbers on the shoulder was arresting. But by the time appearances of such variations on the primary uniform had hit the double figure mark, the novelty had long worn off.
The popularity of vintage sporting apparel in rap videos, the booming business of Philadelphia’s Mitchell & Ness that specializes in such nostalgic garb, and the demand by stadium fanatics for more diverse gear than the traditional “home” and “away” has resulted in a market for uniforms that aren’t very uniform. But in the era of free agency — with players, coaches, and even teams departing their familiar haunts — what fans could really use is stability. Familiar color schemes, logos, and even names rooted in the hometown — think Packers, Steelers, 49ers — give them that.
One football team that seems to understand this is the Chiefs’ opponents this week, the Oakland Raiders. In the inaugural AFL season, Raider team colors were black and, gasp, gold. Rather than field a Raider team wearing colors that would strike its fan base as unnatural, Oakland opted to stick with the same silver and black — with a few tweaks — to which Raider Nation has grown accustomed.
“You’ve seen our uniforms,” Mike Taylor, a team spokesman, explained. “They’re essentially the same as they’ve always been.” The Yankees wear pinstripes. The Montreal Canadiens wear the “Hockey Club” logo. The Raiders wear silver and black. Some things in sports are sacrosanct, or at least should be.
The Raiders have transitioned from an elite NFL franchise into perennial cellar dwellers. They’ve changed head coaches five times in the last eight years. The quarterback position has been a revolving door of journeymen (Aaron Brooks, Andrew Walters, Josh McCown, etc.) since Rich Gannon led them to a Super Bowl to conclude the 2002 season. They even moved from Oakland to Los Angeles before moving back to Oakland. But trade in the silver-and-black for a gold-and-black marketing gimmick? Perish the thought.
The uniforms donned by the Oakland Raiders this weekend may not conjure up images of the early days of the AFL. But maintaining silver-and-black continuity, in an era of cheap marketing gimmicks, is certainly a throwback mentality.