Oregon’s new Nike-designed football uniforms are being unveiled today. No, they’re not quite as extreme as the illustration shown at right, but they’re predictably silly nonetheless, featuring four different jerseys, four different pants, and three different helmets, all of which can be mixed and matched (plus there will be several different undersleeve options, creating even more of a crazy-quilt effect). They’ve also reprised the diamondplate pattern and the “Oregon” and “O” on the pants, all of which first appeared in last year’s Civil War game. Basically, the whole thing is ridiculous, which is pretty much what everyone expected.
I got a sneak peek at the new designs because I wrote a short piece about them for the new issue of ESPN [the] Magazine, which hits newsstands today. Naturally, I poked fun at the new unis, although I didn’t go overboard because by now everyone knows what to expect from an Oregon uniform. If ever there was a case of “Dog Bites Man,” this is it.
Anyway, here’s what I want to talk about today: While working on that article, I spent the better part of two hours interviewing Nike VP Tinker Hatfield (the guy who’s also largely responsible for the Air Jordan line) and Nike Creative Director Todd Van Horne. And as is so often the case when dealing with people you supposedly revile but have never actually met, they turned out to be really interesting folks. I remain diametrically opposed to their notions of branding, and I think their idea of good design is very, very different than mine (and, I hope, yours), but I enjoyed talking with them and gained a lot of respect for them in the course of our discussions. I also give them a lot of credit for being so open and forthcoming with me, even though they knew my feelings about a lot of their work. In short: classy guys.
Stockholm Syndrome? Yeah, maybe, at least in part. But the reality is that it’s easy to demonize a faceless abstraction called “Nike” (which is why I’ll no doubt continue to do it), but things get a bit trickier when you put living, breathing human beings into the equation. With that in mind, and in the spirit of fairness, I want to share some of the things that came up in our interview but didn’t make it into the short article I ended up writing:
• The Nike people are well aware that the approach they’ve taken with Oregon and with some other schools wouldn’t fly with some the country’s more conservative programs. “The University of Oregon is willing to partner with us on this approach, and I don’t think you’d find that in too many Division I programs,” Hatfield told me. “If we walked into Joe Paterno’s office and said, ‘How about putting “Penn State” on the left leg of the pants?,’ we’d probably get tarred and feathered. We think it’s great that there are these storied programs around the country that have tradition, and you just don’t mess with them. I love Michigan’s uniforms; I love the simplicity of Penn State.” He sounded pretty sincere about this (although, as I pointed out to him, Nike did “mess with” Michigan’s road jersey last season). Of course, it would be nice if he could bring some of that simplicity to other Nike-outfitted teams, but that’s another matter.
• If you look again at this photo, you’ll see that Oregon’s new pants and jerseys come in green, yellow, white, and black, but the helmets only come in green, yellow, and white. Why isn’t there a black helmet? “That was discussed — some players thought it’d be pretty cool,” Hatfield told me. “But I didn’t think it would be right, out of respect for Oregon State, because they have black helmets. So I vetoed any black helmet.”
• Nike’s Oregon program is all geared toward catering to the athlete — not just in terms of the uniform’s performance-based aspects (which makes sense), but also in terms of aesthetics (which doesn’t, at least to me). They hold focus groups with the players, have the players submit design sketches, and so on. So if you think these unis look like they were designed by a bunch of 20-year-olds, well, to a certain extent they were. “They want to feel intimidating, like gladiators coming into the arena,” Van Horne told me. And about the diamondplate pattern, Hatfield said, “It’s basically a graphic representation of toughness. The players want to look tough — it’s a tough sport, there’s a lot of intimidation.” Frankly, I think this is all pretty stupid, but hey, 20-year-olds are stupid (if anyone reading this is 20 years old, I apologize, but trust me, your smarter years are ahead of you). Of course, the larger issue is why Nike would cater exclusively to the athletes when there’s a much larger group of people who have to look at the uniforms, but that’s a separate issue.
• It could have been worse: Many of the players were in favor of going with the asymmetrical-sleeves look, but the Nike people decided against it.
• The tapered uni numbers (here’s the full set) are a new typeface called Bellotti Bold. They were essentially art-directed by Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, who didn’t like the numbers used in the Civil War game (and hey, who can blame him?). Hatfield said, “The tapered number just adds a little more of a dynamic attitude. Basically, if a player feels more invincible, he’ll go out and play better. That’s sports psychology 101.” Again, I think this is silly at best, but it appears to be another case of giving the players (and, in this case, the coach) what they want.
• Speaking of the numbers, the actual number fabric is stretch twill, so the numerals will stretch and give along with the rest of the jersey — apparently a first in uni design.
So have I suddenly become a Nike apologist? Hardly. I still think they’re the biggest problem in sports design today, I still think they usually have the manufacturer/team relationship backwards, and they reeeaaaalllly need to cut back on all the swooshes. And when Hatfield trots out a talking point like, “We’re used to the criticism, because that’s the role of the leader,” as he said to me toward the end of our interview, that’s just a convenient all-purpose dodge.
But it was good to trade ideas with Hatfield and Van Horne, and to be able to put a human face on Nike — to see the man behind the curtain instead of the Wizard of Oz, so to speak. Only problem is, the curtain is covered in swooshes.