Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Fashion Week

Even if Georgia had beaten Boise St., they should have forfeited on principal alone. 
Trading in their traditional red and black uniforms for the gaudy Nike Pro Combat monstrosities didn’t help in a 35-21 lose to begin a season where they were declared this year’s Auburn. After today, those jerseys will be nothing more than fodder for talk radio jokes and filler for alumni fundraising auctions. 
Having specialty uniforms for big games is all the rage in college football. The Oregon Ducks, as part of a 15 year marketing plan by Nike, have revolutionized their program by creating an image. “Throwback” jerseys are finding their way to even the most established programs, and ESPN has devoted a section of their website to “Uni Watch”. Somewhere, Dick Butkus and JIm Brown are gagging at the thought of this.
I’m not going to get into a rant on the amount of money generated through college football or whether or not collegian athletes should be paid. The topic has been discussed ad nauseam. However, I do find it interesting how easily we’ve all come to accept the extremes that college football has become corporatized. 
Thanks to Nike and Under Armor, college football is as much about the image created as it is the game itself. In a recent article from Michael Kruse on Grantland, Nike CEO and Oregon alum Phil Knight devised a plan to generate nationwide attention for a program that had spent the better part of a century at the bottom of the college football world. Through branding and marketing designed for 17 year old athletes, Oregon went from entrenched in mediocrity to football power. Recruits flocked (pun intended) to the university that was pushing the limits of how close a football uniform could resemble Batman’s outfit
The plan worked perfectly. Oregon finished a near perfect season, and superstar running backs LaMichael James and LaGarret Blount referenced openly the Ducks’ cutting edge attire as a contributing factor in their decision to play in Eugene. 
And the trend is spreading. Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank, and Maryland football alum, has spearheaded their own futuristic design for the Terrapins, including those worn against Miami that looked like the state flag threw up. Under Armour has also outfitted South Carolina with five different uniform possibilities and a cleat/ankle brace that “Uni Watch” said allowed the shoe logo to not be covered with tape. 
The lucrative relationships between shoe/apparel companies and universities is nothing new. Along with countless other advertisements claiming to be the official _____ of the University of ______, banners sporting the Nike swoosh or the Adidas stripes hang from the rafters or upper decks of arenas and stadiums all over the country. For a few million dollars, a young athlete’s brand devotion can be securely claimed by the time he leaves the university simply by the gear that has been provided. 
This style of marketing has worked its way into high school as well. Just this season, Alcoa High School (and their seven consecutive Tennessee state championship football team) signed a deal with Under Armour for the exclusive rights to outfit their athletic teams. Nike signed a similar deal Maryville High School a few years earlier.
It’s as if college (and high school) administrators found a way around the amateur status of their athletes. Since collegian players can’t be sponsored by corporations, universities are more than happy to take that sponsorship for their brand. LaMichael James is at least six months from his first shoe deal, but Oregon is ready and waiting to capitalize on his ability in countless varieties of his #21 jersey. With kids everywhere from Texas to New York sporting Oregon green (or highlighter yellow or chocolate cake black or gun metal grey or.... whatever), the Ducks become a household name, James becomes a superstar, and Nike makes gobs of money through access to athletes it would otherwise not have. It’s a win-win-win.
This leads to other universities mimicking the same strategies, including the aforementioned Bulldogs, Terrapins, and Gamecocks. If a team wears a specialized jersey for a nationally televised game on ESPN, ABC, or CBS, by Monday morning the racks in the campus bookstore will be filled with these prom dress uniforms for the fans who want to slightly set themselves apart.
It’s difficult to argue against universities doing this. When I was in the seventh grade, I developed an obsession with North Carolina. I argued it was because I used to live there (we moved when I was six), but it was honestly because I saw their Nike gear every time I walked into Champs or Foot Locker. In my middle school mind, it represented the champion image I wanted. With Mack Brown leading a football resurgence at the time, the Carolina blue was too much to pass up. A Tar Heels shirt or jersey was a way for me to feel like the players I was watching on TV. The design of the shirt just made it easier.
The NCAA and college sports purists pride themselves on the amateurism of its athletes, but this is far from reality. Every time Andrew Luck steps on the field, he’s a Nike endorsement. When Marcus Lattimore cuts up the middle for 15 yards for the Gamecocks, the Under Armour logo will be just as prevalent as the garnet and black on his uniform. When an athlete signs with a university, he/she is signing with a footwear/apparel company as well.
But no harm, no foul. Everyone gets something in this symbiotic relationship, and the product on the field improves exponentially every year. 
The problem arises when a football player tries to sell the jersey he received from this sponsorship (i.e. A.J. Green) or trade his complimentary gear he’s promoting for tattoos (i.e. Terrelle Pryor), his amateurism is conveniently brought up. The athlete is branded as selfish and greedy, while the university stands either as a victim or as a pillar of institutional sovereignty. 
This issue joins a long line of NCAA regulations that have become nothing short of laughable. I won’t join the ranks that advocate for college athletes to be paid, but I do stand on the side of calling a spade a spade. If an athlete is an amateur, don’t make him into a billboard or a model for designer uniforms. The charade is embarrassing.


  1. I actually liked the Maryland uniforms.

  2. I appreciate their willingness to be progressive in design and honor their state flag, but it was too much. It seems like Under Armour was in it to make a statement for the company more than create a look that best suited the Maryland football team.