Nike turning college uniforms into costumes

The non-traditional uniforms worn by Missouri in last The non-traditional uniforms worn by Missouri in last Saturday's game are an example of the "superhero-ization" of athletes that has put the focus on marketing rather than tradition. (November 28, 2009) Photo Credit: AP

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Traditional school colors, we were reminded during last weekend's college football action, are quite apart from Nike's true colors. By dressing LSU in white pants and a new shade of gold helmet, and draping Missouri in drab robot-worthy charcoal gray - both dramatic departures from custom and identity - the sportswear-and-equipment beast provided another glimpse into the dark shades of its voracious capitalistic heart.

Nike rolled out its grating new collection (applied to 11 major-college teams) with the claim of being "futuristic," in which case a flux capacitor would be in great demand, to take us all back to a better time.

Nike called the generically cartoonish suits "sleek" and "explosive," hanging a "Pro Combat" tag on the garb and arguing that its designers worked with coaches and administrator to tailor each look to the respective schools' history and lore.

In fact, Nike mostly threw history and lore out the window in favor of drumming up retail sales. By putting "a visual signifier on a dozen different teams," as sports uniform maven Paul Lukas pointed out in a telephone interview, "you're creating a cross-branding thing. By doing that, you're saying that individual teams and schools are not what matters. You're creating a new team. Team Nike."

Lukas readily acknowledges occupying "a very geeky niche" in "obsessing" - his word - over sports uniforms with his on-line uniwatch blog and similar Uni Watch column for ESPN.com. But he is not alone, generating comments from readers as numerous and passionate as arguments over polls and the BCS bowl system.

"People who care about uniforms care a lot about uniforms," he said. "They care about the visual aspect of sports. They care about logos. They care about team colors."

Those logos and colors facilitate a team-follower association, while the Nike culture is "the retail tail wagging the on-field dog" situation, as Lukas put it, in which "the first question you now ask [about team uniforms] is, 'How is this going to sell at the team shop or at Modells?'

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"In sports, especially college sports where players change so much - in four years a whole new roster - what is constant? What are you rooting for? It's that uniform and that logo. If you change the design, it's jarring. You're messing with something people feel very strongly about."

On the Web site "Friends of the Program," reference to Nike's new fashion offensive brought plenty of comments along the lines of "I'm glad they didn't get ahold of Penn State, and thank God Notre Dame and Nebraska are sponsored by Adidas."

The egregious stealth-bomber gray worn last weekend by Missouri (full disclosure: I am a Missouri grad) throughly concealed the school's black-and-gold identity and the distinctive striped helmet design that has been worn for more than 60 years, rendering a mystery team. And taking chromophobia to a new level.

The equaling confusing look for LSU (full disclosure: My dad was an LSU grad) severed all connection to the familiar Bayou Bengals, prompting knowledgeable college football spectators to think they were watching the University of Washington. The Nike preoccupation with black and charcoal also drained the impact from TCU's real colors, purple and white, just as it has been blotting out Oregon's green-and-yellow for years.

"It's interesting what is happening in college sports, and especially college football," Lukas said. "It used to be that the sportswear companies did what the schools told them to do. Now it's the other way around and Nike, especially, gives the marching orders. The outfitter somehow supersedes the school, and has unfortunately been successful with turning the proper relation of team-and-outfitter on its head.

"To my mind, it's an honor for Nike to be making the uniforms for a school. But they're a retailer as well and an outfitter, marketing to younger fans who buy this stuff. So you've got a 18-year-old sensibility driving what hundreds of thousands, really millions of fans and alumni, have to look at. Basically, the inmates are running the asylum.

"This is part of the larger video-game-ization of sports, the superhero-ization of sports. When you use terms like 'pro combat,' you have these fantasy teams and the players become like comic-book superheroes. And superheroes don't wear uniforms. They wear costumes."

Bad ones, at that.

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