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 by Jon Burras
When is a Uniform Not a Uniform?
2019 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
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      The uniform has always been a symbol of commonality, like-minded thinking, shared goals and a communal experience. When we wear a uniform we identify ourselves as a part of a team or a group with a specific mission, whether that is to win a championship or produce the best results in a factory. Normally the values of the team come before any personal desires. The definition of "uniform" means that all parts are equal.
      Uniforms have been worn for centuries by spiritual monks, school children, athletes, cheerleaders, marching bands, military personnel, factory workers and a host of other organizations. The uniform is a way to establish which side of the contest you are on, whether that be an actual war or a symbolic war like in a sporting contest.
      For instance, during the Revolutionary War the British were frustrated because the American colonials hid behind trees to shoot at them wearing no uniform to set them apart from their surroundings. Never having fought a guerrilla war before, the British were brightly adorned in their brilliant red colors and were easy targets as they marched in straight lines.
      The uniform is what sets us apart as a collective and having a shared identity. Private schools have commonly been a fan of uniforms. Growing up in a Catholic background my grade school uniform consisted of black Oxford shoes, black socks, grey slacks (from J.C. Penny's), black belt, white tee-shirt and a white dress shirt. If you forgot your tee-shirt or your belt you were sent home. No exceptions. Shirts were always tucked in and never allowed to hang out. Belts were secured tightly to your pants, not allowing such calamities as today's wardrobe malfunctions of pants being worn down by one's knees.
      Girls wore a black shoe, white socks, plaid skirt, undershirt and white dress shirt on top. Forgetting a bra or having one's skirt more then 3 inches above the knee was a way to be sent home. Nuns would routinely take out their rulers and measure the length of the girls' skirts.
      In some public school districts uniforms are worn so that there is no gang wardrobe being worn, thus minimizing any tribal gang conflicts. For instance, the color shoe you wear might signal the type of gang you belong to. A uniform will help to lessen these altercations. Uniforms are also worn in public schools so that those poorer students are not intimidated by the wealthier ones who might dress "to the hilt" to show off every day.
      As our society has shifted in the last decade so has our attitude towards uniforms. What was once a pride in a uniform and a team experience has transformed into something quite different. The uniform has become the symbol for so much that is transpiring throughout our culture.
      First off, look at how social media has already changed our lives. Many people have become obsessed with how many followers they might have or how many times their social media posts are viewed. Companies like You Tube have made millionaires out of ordinary people by paying them to say or do something on the You Tube site. From a teenage girl instructing others how to put on make-up, a yoga teacher instructing a class, a child showing other kids how to play with toys, social media pays very big royalties because you are unique and doing something different and not belonging to any particular group or team.
      Your individual brand is now more important than any group or shared experience. For instance, many professional athletes are more interested in getting their money, signing their endorsement deals and glowing in how many adoring fans follow them on social media. The team experience comes second. Winning any game or championship is after their own individual earnings. The team and the uniform are just a means for them to rise up the ladder and get their own individual accolades and wealth.
      In the past being part of a winning team and wearing that proud uniform were paramount in importance. The players in today's professional sports have very little loyalty and pride in their team's uniform. To these players, uniforms and team mates are just interchangeable parts in their quest for individual wealth and glory. The uniform means very little.
      A professional athlete of the past might identify with his uniform and team long after he or she retires. He has taken on the identity and characteristics of that team and still sees himself as part of a larger family. For instance, once a "Dodger" always a "Dodger." The 1973 Miami Dolphins were the only professional football team to finish a season with an undefeated record. Those aging members still speak of the team and the uniform as a collective achievement that is still very much alive in them today.
      Many athletes of today see the uniform through racial spectacles. The uniform has become a symbol of authoritarianism as many athletes feel that they are being suppressed by having to conform to someone else's identity. They will attempt to alter their uniform to appeal to their very own brand and style. Some athletes, legally or illegally, will write letters or words on their shoes or jerseys to help promote their own personal message. Some football players cut the sleeves off their jerseys while others cut the mid-section off to reveal their "abs." Football players have been known to wear black "band aids" under their eyes with the area code of their home town. Others embellish a uniform by adding a clear face mask to make them appear more like a robot or "transformer" as if they had magical powers to dominate over others.
      Other athletes grow their hair long into dreadlocks that stick out several feet beyond their neck or shoulders. Jewelry is frequently worn in the field of play from large diamond ear rings to gold chains. These uniform alterations are not just a bad example of team unity they are also safety issues. Frequently we have seen football players dragged down by their extended locks as others have been wrestled to the ground when an opponent has grabbed their gold chain around their neck.
      This reminds me of an incident many years ago when I was sitting in the emergency room of a hospital waiting to have my sore foot examined. In walks a young man with his hand wrapped in a bloodied towel. I overheard him speaking to the attending nurse and he said that he was playing basketball and forgot to take off his ring on his index finger. He went up to slam a basketball through the hoop and his ring got caught in one of the metal rings where the basketball net attaches. As he was coming down his bodyweight pulled on his finger attached to the hoop and his entire finger was sliced off. Uniforms and no jewelry rules are in place for a reason for athletes. Some choose to ignore these rules and face the peril alone.
      Baseball players have been known to wear their caps slightly tipped off to the side as a gang member might do. This is his way of rebellion. Others have altered their uniforms by making them tighter or baggier. Several decades ago men's basketball players wore very short and tight shorts. As the hip hop culture crossed over into sports the uniform shorts became long and baggy, often dropping below the knee. This was a way for culture to influence the uniform. Was this new style of uniform more functional? Not really. It was just another way for players to make a statement using clothing and uniforms in order to do so.
      As of late the uniform has been embraced by corporate America as a walking billboard. No better example of this mockery of dress is the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team. The front of their jersey says "Herbalife", one of their primary sponsors. Fans are not sure if they should root for the LA Galaxy or the LA Herbalife.
      A manufacturer of a jersey used to have its emblem sewn inside a jersey. Now it is displayed prominently on the outside for all to see. For instance, many corporations like Nike, Under Armor and Addidas will now display their name or insignia very prominently on the outside of a uniform.
      For instance, Nike is the manufacturer of many professional sports teams' uniforms. The Nike "swoosh" symbol can be seen very prominently on the front of a jersey like a billboard. The NBA (National Basketball Association) now allows each team to display one additional advertisers' moniker in addition to the Nike symbol. What might be next for the uniform billboard—sparklers and blinking lights?
      Professional sports uniforms have now entered into the high fashion arena. From stylish designs to glow in the dark colors, it often appears that a sports franchise is not so interested in winning anymore but in how well the team is dressed. Sports have gone the way of the Academy Awards. The grand ceremony to impress fans in order to present the award for the best film performances is now obsolete. What has become more important to most is what everyone in attendance is wearing and who designed the dress. Sports uniforms are moving in this direction as well.
      For instance, the University of Oregon receives major sponsorship by Nike. It is not uncommon for the football team to show up with a different color and scheme of uniform for each of the games it plays in the season. No two uniforms are alike.
      The NBA has recently liberated athletes from having to wear a team issued shoe. Now players can be seen running up and down the court in a variety of colorful (and obnoxious) styles of shoes. What one might wish to ask is who is controlling matters in sports as shoe manufacturers have let loose their influence on uniform codes. One is often disturbed as so many different shoe colors obliterate the floor. Yet star athletes have giant shoe contracts and what better way to sell more shoes than to wear them during a game. This is another way for athletes to brand themselves and to step outside the equality of a team uniform. We are seeing more and more in sports that individualism and one's own brand are more important than any achievement a unified team could make. The erosion of the uniform is just a tiny example of this.
      The uniform has now become a banner for political statements as well. For instance, during National Hispanic Awareness Month the NBA will re-label their jerseys with Spanish language names. The Los Angeles Lakers now become "Los Lakers" and the Phoenix Suns become "Los Suns". This is all in the vein of political correctness so that Spanish speaking fans feel like their are included. The NBA has even at times printed the names of their teams in Chinese, hoping to capture a much broader international market.
      This political statement using uniforms gets even more involved. During "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" (usually October) sporting teams will adorn their jerseys with all sorts of pink colors. There will be pink wrist bands and pink head bands. Jerseys will have shades of pink in them. Shoes will be pink. We are bombarded with this political statement during October whether we like it or not. Maybe it is time to go back to black and white television where it might be easier on the eyes.
      The NBA has also started a new gimmick by emblazoning its jerseys with a nickname for the team rather than the team's actual name. These uniforms are called "The City Edition". For instance, the Golden State Warriors become "The Town" for a month of the year while the Detroit Pistons wear a jersey called "Motor City" for a short period of the season. This is a way for the NBA (and companies like Nike) to capture a theme or ideology of a particular NBA city and make more money in jersey sales at the same time. The uniform once again has become a canvas for design rather than a functional tool to distinguish players.
      We have seen the evolution (or de-evolution) of the uniform over the last few decades all across the broad spectrum of those who wear uniforms. While some might approve of these changes others are horrified at the thought.
      One thing is for sure, you might have some criticism for the Catholic Church and for nuns who ruled with an iron fist (and a 12-inch ruler). But what is clear is the fact that they sure knew a uniform when they saw it and were also clear when one was out of uniform. They were unbreakable in their compliance with uniform codes and strict standards. If it was not right you were sent home. I wonder what it would be like if more nuns were running sports franchises and more common sense could be found. Why have a uniform if it is not "uniform"? When do uniforms stop becoming moving billboards, fashion design items or political statements?