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"I cannot tell you how many e-mails I've gotten about her," says Muqtedar Khan. "The Muslim cybersphere is just buzzing about it -- people are thrilled."
Khan, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware, is referring to Ruqaya Al Ghasara, a 24-year-old sprinter from Bahrain who recently competed at the 15th annual Asian Games in Qatar. And why are Muslims buzzing about her? For the same reason Uni Watch is interested in her: her running attire.
Nike provides footwear and apparel to Bahraini athletes through an arrangement with the Bahraini Olympic Federation. But Al Ghasara doesn't wear standard Nike running garb. Like a few other female Muslim athletes, she adheres to traditional Islamic standards of feminine modesty, which means she wears long sleeves, long pants, and a hijab, which is the headscarf worn by Muslim women. That last item -- the hijab -- is where things get interesting.
Check out this chronology: Al Ghasara's first appearance at the Asian Games was on Dec. 8, when she ran a qualifying heat. The next day she ran in the 100-meter finals, where she finished third, taking the bronze medal.
Two days later, Al Ghasara made her final Asian Games appearance, running in the 200-meter finals. Two things were different: First, she won -- good for her! There was also a slight adjustment to the left side of her hijab. If you look veeeeery closely and maybe squint a little, you just might be able to spot it.
OK, so maybe you don't have to squint.
Now, Uni Watch's issues with Nike are well-documented, as is Nike's notorious habit of splashing its logo on everything in sight. Al Ghasara, after all, was already wearing a swoosh on her chest and at least a dozen more on her shoes (count 'em: four on the sides, two on the toes, and two on the tongues, plus two on the heels and two on the soles).
But swooshifying a religious garment is pretty low, even for Nike -- or at least that's what Uni Watch initially thought. It turns out, however, that the situation is more complex than that.
"It was her choice to wear the one with the swoosh," says Nike spokesman Brian Tacchini. "I'm not sure if it's something that she requested to have made, or if we offered it, but she chose to wear it in the 200 meters."
And why did she make that choice in the middle of the competition?
"I can't even speculate on that," says Tacchini. "But we help out an athlete whenever we can with their requests."
Tacchini later e-mailed Uni Watch the following official corporate statement: "While Nike does everything it can to provide our athletes with the most innovative footwear and apparel available, it is always up to the athlete to decide what they wear in competition."
In other words: "Don't look at us -- it was her idea." OK, message received. As Uni Watch's deadline approached, Tacchini provided an additional statement from Abdulrahman Askar, general secretary of the Bahraini Olympic Federation, as follows:
"Al Ghasara added the Nike logo as a sign of respect for the corporate sponsors of the Federation. In our contract with Nike, all athletes competing for our team must wear Nike apparel with the Nike logo. As Nike does not make the hijab, Al Ghasara took it upon herself to have her hijab embroidered with the Nike logo. There was no political or religious motivation in doing this. Her successes at the Asian Games are being celebrated by all as a sportswoman and nothing more."
That basically jibes with the information in this article, in which Al Ghasara explains that she hopes her hijab will inspire other Muslim women to enter competitive athletics, so she may have seen the swoosh-branded hijab as a way of demonstrating that sports and Islam can coexist. Then again, the article also says "tradition weighs heavily" in her choice to compete in Muslim garb, and hey, nothing says tradition like a sportswear logo.
That raises another question: Does the sight of a corporate-branded hijab have the potential to offend, or even outrage?
"No, I don't think that is going to cause problems," says Khan, the University of Delaware professor. "These photos of her wearing the hijab are going to endear her to many people, and nobody will worry about the logo. I haven't heard anyone complain about it." Other Muslim authorities contacted by Uni Watch echoed this assessment.
Sounds like a win-win. And it's worth noting that Nike has a history of helping Muslim athletes with these sorts of issues, having recently worked with the U.N. to devise loose-fitting attire for volleyball players at a Kenyan refugee camp (more info on that here). Can a line of "performance hijabs" be far behind? Stay tuned.
(Special thanks to Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek for his research assistance.)
Speaking of Nike, their promised mix-and-match program of almost limitless uni combos for Oregon football never quite materialized this season, mainly because the Ducks never broke out the yellow or white helmets. But that could change Thursday, when the team may wear its flaming yellow helmet in, rather appropriately, the Las Vegas Bowl. Further details, along with amusing quotes from a few befuddled Ducks players who clearly aren't enthused by the prospect of having to wear this thing, are available here (you may have to register for the site, but it's easy and free).
When someone connected to a team passes away, he's usually honored with a distinct, custom-designed memorial patch (or decal, or what) on the team's uni. But the Kansas City Chiefs appear to have come up with something Uni Watch has never seen before: a consistent team protocol for memorial tributes.
It began in 2000, when the Chiefs wore a "58" helmet decal in memory of Derrick Thomas. Five years later, they used the exact same design style for their "HS" decal in memory of Hank Stram. Now they've used that same design again, this time for their "LH" tribute to Lamar Hunt.
Speaking of Hunt, you can see him wearing some really cool Chiefs blazers, along with some other Chiefs-related uni tidbits, here.
Last week's Uni Watch chin strap manifesto prompted a surprisingly wide range of responses, including several that pointed out something Uni Watch had forgotten about: In the late 1990s, many of the Steelers briefly wore black chin strap cups, sometimes with black straps to boot. "They also wore black mouthguards and replaced their white cheekbone pads with black ones," writes Mark Morabito. "It only lasted a few weeks, until the NFL told them to stop."
Other chin strap feedback:
• From Matt Olson: "Not sure if anyone has mentioned the Strap-Loc yet. I first noticed them early this year on a few members of the Wisconsin football team." This accessory is new to Uni Watch. Anyone out there tried it yet?
• Jim Hall points out that Uni Watch neglected to mention another popular chin strap accessory: the gel insert.
• From Jeff Backschies: "When I was a kid, I remember being mystified when I'd see pics of guys who didn't wear chin straps on their helmets. It seemed really stupid. Here's one of Don Meredith, and here's a Q&A that talks about it." The Q&A (on the peerless Helmet Hut Web site) names several other strapless players, including Sonny Jurgensen, Don Maynard (who, as you can see in the photo, also wore added special cheekbone-area helmet extensions, sort of a forerunner to today's Riddell Revolution design), and Daryle Lamonica (Uni Watch couldn't find a strap-less photo of him). It also mentions, "Former Eagles receiver Ben Hawkins was known for wearing a chin strap but not snapping it to both sides of the helmet, which left it constantly dangling during play." Uni Watch recalls Steelers QB Joe Gilliam doing this as well, but photo research has so far come up empty.
• From Glenn Mahoney (with Todd West making the same point): "I'm surprised you didn't mention the chin strap follies of John Hall, who'd wear his strap under his chin, like the elastic band on Little League helmets."
• From Matt Olson again: "How about former Packer Sean Jones, who had an extra buckle added to his four-point, low hook-up chin strap." Uni Watch notes that Mathias Kiwaunka has an extra snap as well.
• Longtime reader Kurt Rozek practically threw Uni Watch into cardiac arrest by sending along a photo of something that simply does not compute: Brett Favre wearing a four-point strap (instead of his usual two-pointer). "The photo is from 1992, his first year as a Packer," writes Rozek. "I think it was the only year he wore it in Green Bay." True enough, although it turns out he also wore a four-pointer when he was with the Falcons.
• Maybe Johnson could learn something from Helmet Hut's Jim Parker, who wraps things up with a bit of historical perspective: "In the 1950s and '60s, players like Raymond Berry and Gale Sayers had an extra snap riveted next to the ear hole on each side of the shell. They used this extra snap to attach the unbuckled end of the chinstrap during practice or pregame warm-ups, so both ends of the chin strap would be snapped to the same side of the helmet."
Paul Lukas figures a swoosh should be appearing on Santa's hat any day now. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.