By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

One sleeve, two sleeve, orange sleeve, blue sleeve. That was the unsightly story line in Florida Saturday, when the Gators wore their Nike-designed mismatched-sleeve jerseys, which had achieved instant infamy before the final gun had sounded. This came two days after Virginia Tech had worn its own mismatched-sleeve design against Boston College Thursday night, making this probably the worst-looking 48 hours in college football history.

As regular Uni Watch readers are well aware, these jerseys are just the latest step in Nike's season-long obsession with turning non-matching sleeve colors into a signature brand style. First came the mismatched short undersleeves; then, as the weather got colder, they rolled out the mismatched long sleeves; and then there were those enterprising players who just wore one long sleeve.

Little did Uni Watch suspect that these developments were just warm-up acts for the new jerseys, which were designed to coordinate with the undershirts (although it's not clear whether Nike realized that some players would wear the undershirt backward, creating a mismatched pair of mismatches, sort of like a court jester). As incredulous readers peppered Uni Watch HQ with outraged e-mails -- we'll get to those in a second -- one question was uppermost in Uni Watch's mind: Did Nike get the idea to create these jerseys after the season already had started, or had it planned to introduce the jerseys all along? In other words, was this a spontaneous idea or part of a larger, calculated scheme?

"This was planned during the offseason, as a timed phase-in," Nike spokesman Rodney Knox says. "We'd been working on a new jersey technology for years. But then, when we came up with the first-layer shirt with the iconic sleeve, we said, 'Man, why don't we give the jersey the iconic sleeve, too?' And when we introduced the first-layer shirt to retailers, we showed them the progression of just the shirt, then the shirt with shoulder pads over it, and then the shirt with the matching jersey. So that was always the plan. And the fan response seems to be very positive."

Oh really? Knox might want to take a peek at Uni Watch's in-box, which overflowed with nearly 200 e-mails about the Virginia Tech game alone, virtually all of them negative. A quick statistical breakdown reveals that seven different respondents made reference to vomiting, six made reference to eyestrain (two of whom included the phrase "My eyes, my eyes!"), five said the VT players looked as though they had their left arms in casts and/or slings, four said VT should be barred from the BCS, four more said they kept thinking the Hokies were going to tilt and fall over, three said the orange shoulder reminded them of "Star Wars" stormtroopers, and three more said Halloween must have arrived a few days early. The Florida jersey drew similar reactions, and Uni Watch is bracing for another wave of protest this coming Saturday, when Miami is slated to wear this. (Contrary to what you might have heard, however, there are no plans for USC or Oregon to wear mismatched sleeves, although Oregon might be wearing something like this later in the season. More on that in a future column.)

The problem with all this -- aside from, y'know, its looking really, really stupid -- is that it creates an aesthetic connection between the mismatched-sleeve schools, so they all look as though they're playing for Team Nike instead of for themselves (just like all the teams that wear the wraparound rear bib, another Nike "innovation"). This not only waters down and cheapens the individual schools' visual identities but also perpetuates Nike's patently bogus notion that its own brand is more important than the teams' brands. Memo to Phil Knight: The swoosh draws its legitimacy from the teams that wear it, not the other way around.

But that legitimacy might be on the wane, at least among Uni Watch readers, who can see through this flimflammery. Here are some of the more inspired (and printable) reactions to the Virginia Tech and Florida jerseys:

• "It's official: Nike has blind people designing uniforms now."

• "I have never actually had to call a bookie and change a bet because of uniforms [until now]. Tech has absolutely no hope of making it to the national title game now. It's a sad day. I hate Nike."

• "The entire Florida team looks like they lost their balance near a giant vat of end-zone paint, or like they were sideswiped by a runaway Home Depot. And it's even worse since it's a frigging Nike marketing campaign."

• "Is this some evil conspiracy by Nike? I didn't think much of it when Lance Armstrong's Discovery Channel teammates sported one yellow shoulder on the last day of this year's Tour de France, but it looks like Nike is trying to spread that hideous look elsewhere. O great Uni Watch, arbiter of style on the playing fields of this world, I pledge to wear horizontally striped stirrups to work every day for a week if you can use your considerable influence to make this plague go away!"

Ah, if only it were that easy. Some readers even claimed that the combination of the contrast-colored jersey sleeve and the matching undersleeve created an orange Nike swoosh when a player's arm was bent the right way (similar to how the swoosh appears whenever a Denver Bronco assumes a three-point stance). Uni Watch thinks that might be a bit of a stretch, at least based on the visual evidence, but would anyone be surprised if that was part of Nike's master plan? The company's become so logo-obsessed that it even has Marcus Vick wearing little swoosh-emblazoned sock bands. Enough already!

Uni Watch can't think of any other football teams, pro or college, that have worn two-tone sleeves (in fact, aside from the stray jersey patch and the Steelers' helmet, it's hard to find any asymmetry in football unis, except maybe for those 1996 and '97 Pro Bowl clown suits). But there's at least one precedent among the other major sports: the Atlanta Thrashers' third jersey, which looks, well, about as lame-o as the Florida and Virginia Tech jerseys. Interestingly, although basketball uniforms don't have sleeves, they've had plenty of asymmetry over the years, most of which has looked pretty cool (although Sacramento's new alternate uniforms, which sort of have mismatched sleeves -- or at least mismatched arm holes -- are a complete disaster).

Speaking of basketball, Uni Watch will be back Tuesday with the NBA season preview. Lots of developments to cover, big and small. Plus the usual boatload of news factoids and follow-ups, including still more chicanery from the friendly marketeers at Nike. See you then -- same time, same station.

Paul Lukas' shirts, none of which is made by Nike, all have matching sleeves. Archives of his "Uni Watch" columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list? Contact him here.




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