I was a football fan once, for about three weeks.
Eleven years old, I spotted a set of NFL pencils at the drugstore and was immediately enchanted by the rainbow of colors beneath the slick plastic packaging.
I didn’t watch football. I disliked the mud, the unpleasant grunting, the nasty injuries and the way it made my father scream obscenities while I was trying to read Judy Blume. The point system seemed designed expressly to frighten away right-brainers like myself.
But, oh, those pristine pencils… Painted and printed in each team’s gleaming trademark colors, they looked to me like long, hexagonal jewels, and I fingered them with something approaching awe. In particular, I fell madly in love with the more glamorous color combinations: The Seahawks’ royal blue and sparkling silver, the Vikings’ rich purple and vibrant yellow, the Dolphins’ aqua green and coral orange and the 49ers’ regal red and glittering gold.
Who knew football could be so astoundingly pretty?
I began to see the sport with new eyes, noting the way different teams adorned themselves with bright stripes or dark shoulder patches to appear faster, meaner, bigger or simply (and I applauded them for it) more fashion-forward. Helmets contrasted gloriously with jersey cuffs. Belts — my god, belts! — matched socks. To me, the entire gridiron looked like an astroturf catwalk.
I told no one how I felt, figuring such an effeminate affinity for the game would get me mocked, chided and, quite possibly, doused in Lite beer by “real” football fans. The guys I knew, the ones who came over on weekends to fixate on our television and rant about good trades and bad calls, believed that football players were either beating the crap out of their opponents, or they were worthless — stylish pants notwithstanding.
But I learned something recently while listening to my husband and son engage in a testosterone-fueled squabble over the facemask color and jersey font for the custom-designed team on their Madden Football video game:
Even for a chest-thumping pastime like pigskin-chucking, outfits matter.
Men would rather we didn’t know it. They’re not especially proud of it. But why else would there be such excitement over all the new “throwback” jerseys, and such an outcry over the Vikings’ new oddly-striped uniforms — especially when fans ought to be decrying the team’s lousy record this season?
Why else would Home Depot team up with Glidden Paint online to let you decorate a digital bathroom in the Green Bay Packers’ drab green and mustard yellow? (I hope you won’t do this.)
Men are more visual-oriented creatures than women, so we shouldn’t laugh at them when footage of the San Diego Chargers — wearing their classic powder blue jerseys — makes them sigh out loud.
There’s evidence that the players themselves take their Sunday garb to heart: The Bengals, Buccaneers and Broncos all made it to or won their first Super Bowls shortly after adopting snazzy new uniforms, and the Cowboys have long considered their own dark blue jerseys “jinxed.”
Fashion terms abound in football: Yardage, buttonhook, clothesline. But ESPN.com’s Paul Lukas denies the connection.
“It has nothing to do with fashion,” insists Lukas, whose Uni Watch column — devoted to “the obsessive study of athletics aesthetics” — laments monochromatic uniforms, explains why purple should never appear on sports clothing and staunchly defends his heterosexuality. “It’s about documenting and maintaining the visual history of sports design, and about minutiae fetishism as its own reward.”
He can color the clothing obsession whatever shade he likes, but read between the yard lines this Sunday and you may come to the same shocking but satisfying conclusion I have:
That “man-to-man coverage” is actually guy-code for “Dude, check out the laces on the tight end’s pants.”