Names on uniforms are another break from Penn State's past

Penn State's Michael Mauti (center) after an interception. This year's jerseys will include names for the first time.
Penn State's Michael Mauti (center) after an interception. This year's jerseys will include names for the first time. (CHARLES FOX / Staff)
Posted: August 23, 2012

With Joe Paterno dead, his football program buried beneath NCAA sanctions, and Penn State's reputation on life support, the plain-vanilla uniforms that were such a powerful symbol of all three never had a chance.

Earlier this month, the beleaguered university announced it would break with long-standing tradition and add both players' names and blue ribbons to the Nittany Lions uniforms Paterno had kept unadorned for decades.

Compared with the cartoonish outfits football players at schools such as Oregon, Maryland and Wisconsin will wear this season, the tweaks to Penn State's blue-and-white outfits seem insignificant.

But as mundane as the changes that will debut on Sept. 1 might appear, the reasons for them were complex, having more to do with the school's uncertain future than its fashion history.

With a few strokes of a sewing machine, Penn State will symbolically break from its Jerry Sandusky-scarred past, honor victims of child sexual abuse, signal the start of a universitywide rebranding and, not insignificantly, possibly reinvigorate a depressed market for its merchandise.

"It's a new coach. It's a new era," said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOneSource, a Maine-based firm that tracks the sports merchandise market. "It's probably time to freshen things up a bit."

It was a delicate decision for university administrators who find themselves poised uneasily in the narrow demilitarized zone between those who continue to support Paterno and those who want a clean break from his tainted legacy.

The simple uniforms, so un-hip that they became cool, played an enormous role in creating the aura of Penn State football. The Nittany Lions program, its supporters liked to say, was much like those uniforms: simple and clean.

Asked to explain the rationale for the uniform switch, and whether the decision was new coach Bill O'Brien's alone, a university spokeswoman directed a reporter to the news release. In announcing the historic change, the statement portrayed it as an act of altruism.

The blue ribbons, the release stated, would honor the victims of Sandusky and other child-abusers, while the names on the backs would recommit the players to "uphold the traditions of Penn State football both on and off the field."

But almost immediately it was seen as an effort to break from the past, with some who had worn the uniforms during Paterno's 46-year reign as head coach expressing disappointment.

"I just think there are certain things you don't touch, and that's one of them," former tight end Troy Drayton told the York Record. "That's a part of Penn State history. Changing it changes everything for me. . . . To me it's a slap in the face. Putting the names on the jerseys is blasphemy."

At a recent summer-camp media session, players such as Michael Zordich and Matt McGloin noted that unhappiness.

"Some won't like it," Zordich said, "but you have to do what you have to do in this situation. It's not that normal a situation to be in. Any [motivational] inch you can gain, if that helps you out, you take it."

McGloin acknowledged that the move had been met with "a lot of negativity."

"At the same time," he added, "it's not anything selfish. We're not trying to change the uniform."

But is it possible the change was an attempt to sell more of them?

After all, more than $5.5 billion worth of college sports merchandise was sold last year, and schools such as Penn State typically receive an 8 to 12 percent licensing fee on each transaction.

And far fewer people have been buying clothing adorned with Penn State's name or logo. Demand for Penn State merchandise has plummeted in the nine months since Sandusky's arrest.

That trend was exacerbated by the July 18 release of the Freeh report, which concluded that Paterno and Penn State administrators had covered up Sandusky's behavior to protect the football program.

"Since the scandal, and particularly since the Freeh report came out, sales have fallen off dramatically," Powell said. "The last four weeks sales of Penn State merchandise have been down about 50 percent."

But unlike professional sports, where the popularity of individuals drives their sales, jerseys make up a small part of the collegiate merchandise market.

"It's probably only 5 percent," Powell said. "Most of what's sold are T-shirts, fleeces and sweatshirts. So I don't think them adding names is going to make much of a difference."

There was a time when no team in sports wore uniforms that included players' names. But in 1960, maverick Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck adopted them. That same year, the new American Football League put names on all its jerseys. Soon so did virtually the entire sports world.

Half a century later, the only major professional sports team that still wears nameless jerseys both home and away is the New York Yankees. Baseball's Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants wear them only at home.

The Yankees were Paterno's inspiration. The polished black shoes and neat pin-striped uniforms the Bronx Bombers of the 1940s wore impressed the idealistic teenager.

"Those guys walked with a little swagger," Paterno would say.

For him, the plain uniforms gave his Penn State team a unique identity, a shared bond.

"We're conservative, and we like team people," he would say. "We're not looking for flashy people. I think people every once in a while need symbols to reinforce those sentiments."

And so, except for the addition of a Nike swoosh in the 1990s - part of a licensing agreement with the sports equipment giant - Penn State's uniforms remained as famously bland as its offenses.

When he was hired in January, O'Brien vowed he would keep Penn State's uniforms intact. But given the unending bad news that has afflicted the school ever since, Paterno's successor eventually bent to reality.

"I'm very respectful of the traditions here. Very respectful," O'Brien said recently. "But it's a new era of Penn State football in many ways, and the reason for the names on the back of the jerseys is . . . I want people to recognize the fact that these are kids that are special, competitive kids that care about education, that care about Penn State and have gone through some tough times over the last year . . . and they've stuck with us."


Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068, ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com, or @philafitz on Twitter. Read his blog, Giving 'Em Fitz, at www.philly.com/fitz.

|
|
|
|
|