First and foremost: The site is finally back in business. Full archives, full comment functionality, full everything. For further details, look here. Many thanks for your patience during the hassles of the past week.
Meanwhile: The Mets wore their first responder caps last night, as has been their longstanding custom on September 11th. All other teams wore American flag cap patches (although, as usual, there were a few players whose caps were flag-free), and the Blue Jays went a step further by wearing the American flag on one side and the Canadian flag on the other.
And that leads us back, in a roundabout way, to something that first popped up on Monday, when I suggested it might have been inappropriate for LaDainian Tomlinson to run around waving the stars and stripes prior to Sunday’s Chargers/Bears game. I’ll have more to say about that later on in this post. But before I get to that, here’s an irony: You know how all NFL helmets have an American flag decal on the back? In the Chargers’ case it’s positioned near the back tip of the right bolt (which it sometimes overlaps). But it turns out that one Charger didn’t wear a flag decal on Sunday. Care to guess who it was? That’s right: LaDainian Tomlinson.
LT didn’t play during the preseason, but I did find this shot from a July 30th practice session — no flag, but also no NFL logo, so maybe they just hadn’t added all the little details so early in training camp. Tomlinson did wear the NFL logo on Sunday, however — but not the flag. He appears to have worn the flag throughout last season, as seen here, here, here, here, and here, so I assume this was just an oversight, not a conscious statement of any kind.
I’m not sure the same can be said, however, for Willie Parker of the Steelers, whose helmet has been flag-free since last season. Look at pics of Parker from last season or this season (that shot is from a preseason game) and you’ll see no flag. But if you look at pre-2006 photos, you’ll see that Parker used to be flag-clad (and that includes his appearance in Super Bowl XL).
This raises several questions, only some of which I can answer:
• Why did Parker stop wearing the flag? Not sure. I have a call in to the Steelers, but I have a feeling I won’t get a straight answer out of them because just about any answer is bound to stir up controversy.
• Even if he wants to stop wearing the flag, it’s part of the uniform, so shouldn’t he have to wear it? You’d think so, yeah. I’ve asked the NFL to clarify whether the flag decal is officially part of the uniform or if it’s a non-mandatory accessory. Will advise.
• Why do NFL helmets have flag decals to begin with? To my knowledge, the first appearance of flag decals in the NFL was in Super Bowl XXV, when the Giants and Bills wore them to show support for U.S. troops in the Gulf War. The flags were gone the following season but reappeared in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. The other major sports made post-9/11 flag gestures as well, but only for one season (or, in MLB’s case, the balance of the season that was already in progress). Only the NFL retained the flag on a full-time basis the following year, and they’ve kept it there ever since.
• Well, we’re still at war, so why not still wear the flag? There is indeed a tradition of sports teams wearing flags or flag-inspired imagery during wartime. This dates back at least to World War I, when baseball teams wore flag patches, flag-inspired shields, red/white/blue armbands, and even red/white/blue stockings.
That said, the flags that began appearing on uniforms in 2001 weren’t about war per se — they were to commemorate those who died on 9/11. (Remember, the Iraq War didn’t start until 2003.) That’s why most sports only kept them for one year. Some might argue that we’re still engaged in the “war on terror,” but that’s really more of a political term than a military one. While the threat it refers to is real, it’s a threat (and, hence, a “war”) that is likely to extend throughout our lifetimes and beyond. It renders the concept of wartime — and signifiers thereof, including flag decals — meaningless.
• Isn’t it wrong to wear a flag on a sports uniform anyway? Arguably, yes. According to the United States Code, Title 36, Chapter 10, §176(j): “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations.” The first sentence is vague, because it says the flag shouldn’t be used as a uniform, not on on a uniform. But the list of acceptable uni applications in the next sentence pointedly excludes sports. In any case, this isn’t binding law — it’s just official etiquette. And we’ve all seen how often that etiquette has been ignored.
Now then, about LT waving that flag during the pregame ceremonies: I want to make it clear that I love the American flag — always have, ever since I was a kid. Gorgeous piece of design, lovely symbolism. I had one displayed in my window for months after 9/11, I always have one displayed on Independence Day, and for years I had an old 48-star version that I used as a backdrop in a display case (I later sold it at a stoop sale because I thought someone else should get to enjoy it). My concern regarding Tomlinson’s antics was the context. Pregame introductions are pretty much designed to get the home crowd whipped up in an us-vs.-them frenzy. And if “us” is carrying an American flag, where does that leave “them”? By using the flag, I thought Tomlinson was essentially appropriating the concept of patriotism in a way that the visiting team — in this case, the Bears — couldn’t realistically hope to match or answer. The implicit message was, “Our team is representing America, which means the other team isn’t,” which crosses the line into poor sportsmanship and being a bad host. Or at least that’s how it felt to me. I would’ve preferred to see Tomlinson waving a Chargers flag, or a San Diego flag, or something that was more team-specific, instead of essentially taking home-field ownership of something that rightly belonged to both teams.
Finally, some of the comments about this issue back on Monday mentioned the playing of the national anthem before games. It may surprise you to learn that this ritual is a relatively recent phenomenon. I was surprised to learn this myself back in 2001, when I was researching an article about “God Bless America” being played at ballparks in the aftermath of 9/11. Here’s the pertinent section of the piece I wrote back then:
The tradition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” being played prior to every game may seem eternal, but keep in mind that the tune wasn’t even officially adopted as the national anthem until the 1930s. According to James Charlton’s The Baseball Chronology, the first instance of the song being played at a ballgame was on May 15th, 1862 — during the Civil War — at Union Grounds in Brooklyn. Over 50 years later, during World War I, a military band played the tune during the 7th-inning stretch of a 1918 World Series game. “From then on,” reports the Chronology, “the song [was] played at every World Series game, every season opener, and, whenever a band [was] present to play it.”
Playing the anthem didn’t become more the rule than the exception until World War II, when public-address systems — which were installed at stadiums in part for civil defense reasons during the war — became sufficiently widespread to enable recorded versions to be played. Even then, there were some holdouts — as recently as the mid-1960s, the Cubs only played the anthem on special holidays like Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, because team owner P.K. Wrigley felt that playing the song at each game effectively trivialized it. And Royals owner Ewing Kaufman cited a similar rationale in 1972, when he ordered that the anthem only be played “on Sundays and special occasions,” because it “was not receiving the respect it deserved.” Public reaction, however, was highly negative, and Kaufman quickly relented.
Six years after I wrote that, it’s hard not to see the growing parallel between the sports-related use of the anthem and the uni-related use of the flag, both of which have gone from the very occasional to the much more commonplace. Some may think this is a good thing; others may disagree. But the similarities are striking.
Flight of the
Bumblebee Nine, Continued: Yesterday’s entry about the flying Alabama helmet numeral prompted some interesting follow-up contributions. For starters, Doug Simpson found another photo of the play in question. At first I didn’t see the airborne 9, but that’s because I wasn’t looking high enough — it’s right in front of the receiver’s left hand.
Then Wade Harder, who had brought the situation to my attention in the first place, checked in with some additional info: “I was able to watch a replay of the play. The decal flew off in a helicopter motion with a good amount of speed and landed about four yards away from Johnson. He was completely unaware of the mishap as he got off the ground and just trotted back to the huddle.”
Uni Watch News Ticker: This quiz was practically made for Uni Watch readers (with thanks to Allie Hinderstein). … I can’t find a good photo, but Vince has noted that USF is wearing a pair of memorial decals. Details here. … Another kicker who wears a wedding band: Rian Lindell. … Tim Sheehan got some nice pics of a vintage Portland Beavers jersey. … Attention Minna H. Your worst nightmare is here, here, and here. … Reprinted from yesterday’s comments: Nice survey of Maple Leafs uni history here. … Jeremy Brahm just informed me of something called the Golden Players Club, which is reserved for players who have 2,000 hits, 250 saves, or 200 wins in Japan. Members get a blazer (lots of additional pics on the four pages that begin here). … Intern Vince Grzegorek, increasingly flexing his journalistic muscles beyond the realm of the uni-centric, has a pair of Cleveland Scene sports blog entries here and here. … Douglas Brei and I would both like to know who the dark-uniformed team is in this photo. … Apparently PTI didn’t get the memo explaining that the new NFL logo isn’t supposed to be used until next year (with thanks to Jason Farmand). … Switzerland’s socks look like upside-down stirrups (thanks, Vince). … According to this video clip, wearing the visiting team’s cap to a ballgame can increase your chances of going home with a baseball (credit Vince yet again). … You’ve heard of throwback uniforms? Here in New York we had a throwback subway the other day. … Latest Bengals uni-related problem: Bryan Robinson’s sleeve stripes appeared to be peeling off on Monday night (good spot by Scott Yager). … Justin Tokarczyk notes that Andy Reid was wearing last year’s headset on Sunday. … Esteban Loaiza wore solid stockings for his Dodgers debut last week, but he must have asked the equipment manager for some stirrups, because that’s what he was wearing last night (good catch by Ros Yoshida). … Several readers have noted that the Cardinals’ coaching staff wears a logo that faces one way on the cap and the other way on the jacket.