When the Northwestern Wildcat football team took Ryan Field in their matchup against the Michigan Wolverines, I was absolutely stunned. The NU players were decked out from head to toe like Captain America figures, draped in patriotic red, white, and blue from helmet to cleats. There wasn’t a hint of their traditional Wildcat purple and white.
The special edition uniforms were covered with images of the American flag, and the space on the back of the uniform that normally contains players’ names had one of the following seven words on it instead: Duty, Honor, Commitment, Courage, Country, Integrity, Service. They were sold after the game and proceeds were donated to the Wounded Warrior Project, which provides programs and services for injured service members and their families as they transition from active duty to civilian life.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved the touching tribute to our service men and women and the inspiring commitment to the Wounded Warrior Project. I am a Navy veteran and like many other college football fans I’m a flag-waving patriot who loves any tribute honoring those who served our country.
Now, I’m no dyed-in-the-wool Northwestern fan who bleeds purple and white, but I have bought into the marketing campaign to crown NU as “Chicago’s Big Ten team.” So, I am an NU fan who believes in that purple and white uniforms should be uniform from week to week on the gridiron. Sadly, those concepts have been swept away in a tidal wave of sartorial splendor on the gridiron. It’s as if Ralph Lauren and other fashion designers have trumped good sense in football uniforms.
Uniform culture is a lot like fashion culture in general. You’ve got your weird, authentic trendsetters (Oregon, Alexander McQueen), your staid traditionalists (Ole Miss, J. Crew), and everyone in between, left to chase trends like chrome helmets and “fancy gloves.” In the end, it all comes down to selling knock-offs to tweens.
It’s all about marketing and fashion and, of course, mega-bucks in sports merchandise. Just consider some of the wild, wacky and ugly football uniforms of 2013.
Indiana introduced four different helmet designs this year, including a weird chrome candy stripe version that did little to improve its dismal record on the field. Flashy uniforms or not, their football still stinks. Miami of Ohio got extra sartorial credit for its unique tribal tattoo helmet patterns, but frankly they still look pretty bad on the field of play. West Virginia went with a trendy scythe-style typeface for player numbers this season, but honestly that typeface clashes with the WV logo and depreciates the overall look. And, their 4-7 record clashes with any sense of gridiron success this season. This season UCLA adopted a uniform design accurately described as a stretch-mark motif. Simply put, their season record of 8-3 beats their fashion sense big time.
The NFL has jumped on the fashion bandwagon as well with a variety of “retro” uniforms harkening back to the early days of professional football. This is all well and good, but some of these flash-back Sundays have been an unmitigated disaster.
For example, the Steelers’ “throwback” to 1934 uniforms in their game against the Lions was an embarrassment. They looked like a cross between of bumble-bees and convicted felons. One wondered whether they were going to play American football or some special variety of rugby.
This designer uniform thing is all the rage in college and professional football. Maybe it will help colleges with recruiting. Maybe it will be a huge additional revenue generator for the college programs struggling to pay skyrocketing salaries for their coaching staffs. Maybe it will be exciting for fans. Maybe, maybe, maybe! As for this fan, he would rather see teams wearing their — I’ll emphasize it one more time — uniforms. It’s football season in America, folks, not fashion week in Paris.