Special to Page 2
It's gotta be the shoes, you say? Nuh-uh -- it's the socks.
If those words sound familiar, it's because they kicked off Uni Watch's exhaustive examination of baseball stirrups a few months back. But they're just as applicable to the NFL, in which Sunday's Colts-Browns game featured an old-fashioned hosiery hoedown. No, not this; Uni Watch is referring to the fact that every single player on the field was wearing striped socks, a sumptuous visual feast that's become all too rare a spectacle these days.
We'll get to the issues of striping in a sec, but first some quick history: The key date in NFL hosiery history is 1945, when league commissioner Elmer Layden decided that NFL players had unsightly legs and enacted a rule, still on the books, requiring high stockings. As currently worded, the rule stipulates that "the exterior stocking must be solid white from the top of the shoe to the midpoint of the lower leg, with approved team color or colors from that midpoint to the top of the stocking," although more and more players these days are lowering the white/color intersection by wearing ankle-length white socks over colored leggings, a style known as "low whites" (and a few have gone further by eschewing whites altogether). Ironically, although low whites are against the league's uni code and sometimes result in fines, they're exactly what Elmer Layden himself used to wear in his playing days, when he was one of Notre Dame's Four Horsemen.
Whatever the ratio of color to white, the point of football socks, at least from a design standpoint, is to provide contrast from the pants. So teams with two different pant designs in their wardrobes usually have two different sock designs as well (color-topped socks for their white pants and white-topped socks for their colored pants), and teams that always wear colored pants usually have one set of contrasting color-topped socks, no matter whether they're at home or on the road. Teams that ignore these basic tenets, by pairing colored pants with same-colored socks, do so at their own peril, because it creates the unfortunate visual effect of a leotard, bordering on a unitard. (There will now be a 20-second break while everyone makes a gratuitous 'tard joke.)
OK, now about those stripes. When the NFL came of age in the 1960s and '70s, most teams wore stripes around the calf area. Sometimes these stripes were even multicolored, which looked particularly sharp when they mimicked the team's sleeve striping (of course, this was when football jerseys actually had sleeves). Except for the Broncos' infamous vertically striped hose -- which you can learn more about by scrolling down to the middle of this very informative page -- the striped look was totally cool. But sometime around 1990, much to Uni Watch's dismay, the stripes started being replaced by solid blocks of color.
The only that teams that still wear old-style multicolored stripes in every game are the Bears (this design with white pants, this one with colored pants) and Chiefs (white pants, colored pants). In addition, the Colts revived their old-school white-striped socks last season (shades of Johnny U!). Then there are the teams that get it half-right, wearing stripes with their dark pants but solid color with their light pants. And then it's downhill from there. Here's a quick ranking of the entire league's legwear, from pigskin purgatory to hosiery heaven: