October 17th, 2011
This past Tuesday, UNC revealed their newly designed basketball jerseys which take a page from the mullet school of style.1 Over the past couple years several schools (notably Texas, Kentucky and Duke) have adopted the Nike Aerographics design, which essentially adds a watermark to the back of the jersey. Since last season, little hints had dropped that Carolina would be embracing the new designs, and last week's announcement made it official that UNC will indeed sport the new aerographics on their 2012 uniforms. As with any change to what is considered one of the classic designs in all of sports, there has been a bit of an uproar among fans regarding the alterations. Here are some of my favorite reactions from Inside Carolina:
-"I blame Oregon football."
-"I hate this much more than I did the interlocking NC."
-"Rabble, Rabble, Rabble"
Okay, so the last one is from South Park, not IC, but you get the idea of the less than warm reception amongst a large portion of the fan base. Even Kendall Marshall responded with a lukewarm "Ehh" when asked about the new design on twitter. For my part, I haven't quite made up my mind as to whether I like the new design.3 The watermark forsakes simplicity and ends up looking a bit like one of the pages in an I Spy book.4 However, part of my nature is relishing the opportunity to play devils advocate,5 so naturally I am going to spend the rest of this piece defending the new design.
Most of the outrage toward the new aerographics seems to stem from the alleged "marring of a classic" that adding the watermark seems to represent. In reality however, UNC has been tinkering with the jersey design for the past decade, whether it be moving from the more traditional "sleeveless" look to the more modern "cutoff" style, adding horns on the shoulders, or the still inexplicable decision to have "Carolina" sewn into the ass region of the shorts. The aerographics are an interesting change because the numbering, text, color, and cut of the jersey all remain unchanged. In fact from a distance the new jerseys will most likely look like the players have sweated through the back of last year's jersey. Is it a more edgy departure from a traditional style? Yes. Does it constitute profaning of the sacrosanct? No.
The more superstitious crowd contends that changing the design of the jersey is a bad omen. The switch to the now infamous interlocking NC is linked in the mind of many to the dark ages of the Matt Doherty era, and the decision to wear all silver jerseys for the 25th anniversary of the Jordan Brand happened to coincide with the debacle that was the 2009-2010 NIT campaign. On the other hand, no two Carolina championship teams have worn the same jersey design.6 So claiming that jersey changes are a bad omen is not justified (it also overlooks the fact that the players wearing the jersey probably have something to do with it).
Furthermore, the new design may have more to offer than ghosted images. Nike claims that the new material drastically reduces the weight of the jersey by near a pound.7 During media day several players made the observations that the updated uniforms felt lighter. Before you write this off as insignificant try playing basketball in a cotton shirt and in a dri-fit top and tell me that you can't feel a difference.
The other more subjective advantage may be in the recruiting world. To anyone who follows recruiting it should be painfully obvious that the ideals of 17 and 18 year old kids differ from those of passionate alums. As Archie Goodwin illustrated this summer,8 some recruits care about this kind of stuff. Oregon football has unquestionably utilized uniforms as a recruiting tool. North Carolina doesn't need to go out of their way to appeal to recruits but neither should they ignore potential avenues to boosting interest.
Before I conclude let me make an observation. When Roy Williams announced on media day this past Thursday that Carolina would be wearing a special uniform for the Carrier Classic on Veterans Day, there was a general sense of excitement from online fans proposing everything from navy jerseys9 to Carolina blue camouflage. These suggestions represented much more drastic departures from tradition than the aerographic designs, but such changes are apparently acceptable because they are only for one game. This illustrates the "alternate uniform" phenomenon, something that all sports have exploited for the past decade. Change a jersey all season and elicit outrage, change it for a game and elicit excitement.
However even if only for one game, alternate jerseys represent a deviation from tradition (in contrast to throwback jerseys which embrace tradition). But apparently that deviation has been deemed acceptable according to some unwritten parameters that allows for transient changes. Recently, Maryland football blurred the line by deciding to wear a different alternate for each game, which essentially eschews the notion of a jersey. Ultimately there is no constitution for jersey design and the only way in which we discover what constitutes crossing the line is for someone to do it.
Ultimately I don't think adding the aerographic patch to Carolina's jersey is crossing the line. As alluded to before, my beef is not with adding aerographics but with the specific design Nike gave UNC. It's too busy and would be better served to simply do less, perhaps only incorporating the Old Well. However there is no point in outrage. In ten years North Carolina's uniform won't look exactly like this year's jersey nor will it look like last year's either. In time we may look back and associate 2012's unique style with what could be a really special season.
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