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Sweatshirts, quarter-zips, and drone culture

How pro sports is killing personality

Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay gestures during a game against the Denver Broncos on Dec. 25 in Inglewood, Calif. Associated Press/Photo by Marcio J. Sanchez

Sweatshirts, quarter-zips, and drone culture
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I have NBA League Pass this year because I’m in the “on” cycle of a lifelong, on-again off-again relationship with the NBA. At some point in a meaningless (aren’t they all, though) Clippers/Jazz game on a Wednesday night, something occurred to me: Both head coaches and all of the bench coaches were wearing the same boring, gray quarter-zip that looks like it came from T.J. Maxx. Weird.

This has been the case in every NBA game this season. Whether it’s Brad Stevens or Tyron Lue or Steve Kerr or any of the myriad of other charisma-less drones who coach NBA clubs, they’re all wearing the same boring quarter-zip. They must have hundreds of these in their lockers. Which raises the question ... why?

Ditto for Rams/Broncos over Christmas—a game which I unfortunately watched. Both coaches were in “Inspire Change” hoodies—as was every assistant coach, practice squad player, and sideline lackey. When players came to the sidelines they exchanged their helmets for “Inspire Change” hats.

Of course, “change” is never exactly “change” anymore. It’s change of a certain kind per the ethics of the organization pushing for “change” and printing the ballcaps. If the NFL really wanted to inspire any kind of “change,” per the letter of the law, they would allow players and` coaches to wear whatever they want on the sidelines. This is of course, like every other deftly marketed 2020s thing, part of an initiative that includes NFL-produced sermon-like documentaries and an officially-licensed retail clothing line so that the NFL can remind you that they are more than what they used to be, which was a company that put on and televised football games for our entertainment.

At some point I realized, “I was going to dig my heels into my antiquated and long-held unpopular social opinions until I saw Tyreek Hill’s ‘Inspire Change’ ballcap and now I’m really rethinking things.” Or, “I was going to continue in my reprehensible racist worldview until I saw the back bumper of Quentin Nelson’s Riddell Speedflex which implored me to ‘End Racism.’”

By slapping vapid slogans all over its workforce and turning them into walking billboards, the NFL and NBA are in some ways undermining the very thing (player empowerment) they are seeking to promote.

The most interesting single thing on an NFL sideline is Lovie Smith’s beard, which is truly magnificent. A close second would be Dan Campbell’s mountainous traps, ensconced as they are in a league-mandated “Inspire Change” hoodie. Campbell has come the closest to scaling the NFL Coaching Personality Mt. Everest, what with his “biting kneecaps” quote, which took like 20 minutes before it became a meme, and two-days before Campbell became a caricature of a certain kind of NFL coach.

As a longtime football player and coach myself, I’ve long thought that football at any level is the least-racist thing I’ve ever personally experienced and is far less racist than the academia-endorsed talks and seminars on race-related stuff that I’m occasionally privy to in my day job as a college professor. If the average fan could spend a non-curated week with a football team at any level, they’d probably walk away pleasantly surprised at how funny and non-racist most football people are because they’d see those people doing a hard job together and basically enjoying each other, playing on a team. These are some of the more attractive things, to me, about football. But by slapping vapid slogans all over its workforce and turning them into walking billboards, the NFL and NBA are in some ways undermining the very thing (player empowerment) they are seeking to promote.

For example, as an NBA player in 1993 you were only required to wear the uniform of the team that paid your salary. Today, you are also a walking/running/shooting shill for the hookup app Bumble (or a variety of other brands—depending on which team you play for), which is something I would have a hard time shilling for. You are also, during warmups, shilling for bringing an end to racism (good), voting (as long as it’s for the right candidate), or whatever foreign country the NBA is trying to establish a marketing foothold in. MLB ballparks (and some uniforms) featured pride-month paraphernalia/logos, which created quite the moral dilemma for a percentage of the workforce.

It seems like a small thing, but I miss seeing Mike Ditka in the iconic Ditka sweater. I miss Tom Landry in a suit. I miss Phil Jackson in a coat and tie and Red Auerbach chomping a stogie. I miss Vince Lombardi in a trenchcoat. I miss Rex Ryan in any context. I miss seeing Belichick in a ratty old hoodie which he has cut the sleeves off of. Even the notoriously punk-rock Belichick is now swaddled in corporate attire.

There are bigger issues at hand in the world—many of which are written about daily in this space. Elections of world leaders are certainly more important than what Sean McVay is wearing on the sidelines, but McVay’s attire represents a sort of corporate, sartorial box-checking. It’s essentially saying to the world: “We want to be seen as the kind of organization that cares about whatever focus-groups as ‘good.’”

The fact of the matter is, sports “Inspire Change” on their own. They gave us Jackie Robinson and Bill Russell and Joe Louis, long before there was any particular corporate intervention to make the whole thing seem crass, sad, and contrived. Which it now is.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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