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Some Thoughts About Virtue Signaling on Uniforms

Back on June 19, I wrote a blog entry about how it looked like MLB was moving toward approving ad patches on uniforms for this season. (Thankfully, the winds soon shifted and uni ads were taken off the table, at least for now.) That entry prompted longtime reader Chris Weber to post the following comment:

I never thought I’d say this, but it’s getting to the point where I have really lost interest in all organized team sports. Between the pandemic shutdown … the virtue signaling, and the ownership greed, I realize my life is too short to warrant such concern.

Since the topic of the day was uni advertising, it’s presumably the “ownership greed” part of that critique that led Chris to post his comment. But for some reason — honestly, I’m not sure why — I was struck by his use of “virtue signaling” in that comment. And although Chris was talking about the sports world in general, not the uni-verse in particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about uniforms and virtue signaling over the past few months. Today I’ve decided that it’s finally time to write about it.

I should say at the outset that I really dislike the term virtue signaling, at least as it’s typically applied as a retort in political and cultural debates. First, it’s largely just a form of name-calling that seeks to delegitimize a viewpoint instead of actually engaging with or refuting that viewpoint. Second, it’s essentially an attempted form of mind-reading, since it asserts that the source of a particular viewpoint is insincere, which is something that’s usually impossible to know. Third, even if the mind-reading attempt happens to be accurate — in other words, even if the person espousing the viewpoint in question really is insincere — that’s not particularly relevant because, as I never tire of pointing out, the message is what matters, not the messenger. Just because someone is insincere doesn’t mean they’re wrong.

But what if we were to strip “virtue signaling” of its current cultural baggage and define it in a more straightforward and literal way — say, “communicating one’s belief in a virtuous cause or sentiment”? When viewed in that context, it’s hard to dispute that there’s been an unprecedented amount of virtue signaling going on in the uni-verse this summer. From activist appeals for racial justice to salutes to health care workers, uni-driven reminders that the sports world cares about the Real World — and is part of the Real World — have been everywhere. The NBA has had social justice messages in place of NOBs and on the court; MLB has had Black Lives Matter sleeve patches and mound logos (although, for the most part, only for the first day or two of the season); the NFL has had racial justice messaging on helmet bumpers, end lines, officials’ caps, and more; college football teams are wearing a wide variety of racial justice patches and helmet decals, and some players are using messages in place of their NOBs; English soccer teams have used their uniforms to support racial justice and the National Health Service; we’ll apparently be seeing social justice messaging in college basketball later this fall; and on and on.

I’m using “virtue signaling” as a shorthand term here. You could just as easily call it civic engagement, or community outreach, or promoting worthy causes. But whatever you want to call it, we’re seeing an extraordinary amount of it this year. It’s become the new normal.

Here’s my question: Is that the kind of uni-verse we want? Or, like Chris Weber, do you find it to be a turn-off?

But wait — before you answer that question, keep in mind that virtue signaling has been part of the uni-verse for a long time now. Here are some pre-2020 examples — some very recent, others going back more than a century:

• Wearing camouflage uniforms (or military branch logo decals, or the names of fallen service members, or other things in that vein) for military appreciation is virtue signaling.

• Wearing stars/stripes-themed uniforms for various holidays is virtue signaling.

• Supporting a war effort by wearing red, white, and blue armbands or Hale America patches or American flag patches is virtue signaling.

• Having players who are war veterans wear the “ruptured duck” patch is virtue signaling.

• Wearing pink for breast cancer awareness (or wearing any other color or symbol for awareness of any other disease or disorder) is virtue signaling.

• Wearing rainbow-patterned uniforms or using rainbow-patterened equipment to support the LGBTQ community is virtue signaling.

• The NFL’s annual “My Cause, My Cleats” promotion is virtue signaling.

• Wearing first responder caps and “We Shall Not Forget” patches on Sept. 11 is virtue signaling.

• Wearing special uniforms for Black History Month is virtue signaling.

• Wearing turquoise uniforms for Native American History Month is virtue signaling.

• Wearing patches or ribbons or decals to honor the victims of hurricanes, mass shootings, space shuttle disasters, highway collapses, bombings, wildfires, and other tragedies is virtue signaling.

• Wearing a recycling logo patch for Earth Day is virtue signaling.

• Wearing poppies for Remembrance Day is virtue signaling.

• Wearing a uniform with Braille lettering to support the blind, or sign language lettering to support the deaf, is virtue signaling.

• Certain “storytelling”-based alternate uniforms, such as the Memphis Grizzlies’ Martin Luther King Jr.-themed uni and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s uni honoring the victims of the 1995 OKC bombing, are virtue signaling.

(We could go further and say that having MLB players wear No. 42 for Jackie Robinson or No. 21 for Roberto Clemente is virtue signaling, and ditto for Negro Leagues throwback uniforms, but at least those worthy causes are sports-related. For now, let’s restrict our discussion of virtue signaling to messages regarding non-sports-related causes or events.)

That’s a pretty long list. I’m guessing most of you like some items on the list more than others. (Me too.) That’s because most of us have different ideas about what does or doesn’t constitute virtue, and different comfort levels with certain types of causes or sentiments being promoted on uniforms. But at their most basic level, all of the gestures on that list are saying the exact same thing: “This is a worthy cause, or at least a worthy sentiment. We support it, and so should you.”

Here’s a thought experiment: If forced to choose, would you prefer that all of the examples on that list take place — the ones you like and the ones you dislike — or none of them? In other words, would you prefer the world we have now, or would you prefer that the uni-verse, as the saying goes, stick to sports?

But wait — before you answer that question, here’s something to think about: When rock and roll was invented back in the 1950s, almost all of the songs were about girls, dating, cars, dancing, school, clothes, and so on. Then, in the early to mid-1960s, a bunch of new artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and many others began to write about politics, racial equality, social justice, opposing the Vietnam War, and so on. You might say they were virtue signaling. Many fans of the earlier rock style, unhappy with the new lyrical content, complained that the artists should avoid social protest topics and “stick to music.”

Just as pop music began engaging with weightier subject matter as songwriters began wanting to express themselves more seriously, it seems to me that a lot of the virtue signaling we’re seeing in the uni-verse these days is about athletes wanting to express themselves. Not only are NBA and NFL players choosing the messages and names we see on their jerseys and helmet bumpers, but the availability of those messaging programs came about largely because the two leagues’ respective unions insisted upon it as a condition for playing during the pandemic. Similarly, the wildcat strike that took place across the sports world in late August was a form of players expressing themselves about the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wis.

I realize some people may not care too much about what an athlete thinks about non-sports topics (honestly, I don’t care that much myself). But for better or worse, that’s the reality we’ve built — all of us — by making athletes into celebrities. Those jillion-dollar salaries didn’t come out of nowhere — we help pay for them every time we attend a game, watch a game on TV, buy team merch, and so on. A player weighing in on things that take place outside the stadium isn’t all that different from a player choosing his walk-up music, or wearing a fancy outfit on his way to the arena because he knows he’ll be photographed as he arrives, or wearing a particular T-shirt to the postgame presser, or sending a message to his millions of Instagram followers. Personally, I don’t much care about any of that stuff, but that’s the sports world we now live in, and we all helped build that world by being sports fans.

So: Do we want athletes to express themselves? Or, as one observer has said, do we want them to shut up and dribble?

But wait — before you answer that, here’s something to think about: We usually applaud athletes when they express themselves by getting involved in their communities, whether by making appearances at the local hospital’s cancer ward, working with underprivileged kids, establishing their own charitable foundations, and so on (all of which could also be described as virtue signaling). Last month’s wildcat strike began because the Bucks and Brewers felt the need to make some sort of gesture regarding the southeastern Wisconsin community in which they play, and many of the other forms of virtue signaling we’re seeing this year are due to Black players feeling the need to speak up for the Black community.

Again, many people may feel more comfortable with some forms of community involvement than others, so it’s worth repeating that same thought experiment I proposed earlier: If forced to choose, would you prefer to live in a world with the full range of community involvement by athletes — the kind you like and the kind you don’t like — or none at all?

But wait — before you answer that, here’s something else I’ve been thinking about. While I realize this probably isn’t always the case 100% of the time, my experience is that the “stick to sports” people often explain their point of view by saying something like this: “I watch sports to escape the real world. I don’t want to be reminded of it.” But with all due respect to those of you who may have said or thought that, I don’t think it’s actually true. I think most of us are perfectly happy for the sports world to have real-world messaging as long as the message is one that we’re comfortable with or approve of. There is no sports-related reason, for example, for a team to showcase a “veteran of the game” or to play “God Bless America,” but many fans feel good about those forms of messaging because it reflects and reaffirms their values. Similarly, there is no sports-related reason for a team to have an LGBTQ Pride Night promotion, but many fans feel good about that form of messaging too, because it reflects and reaffirms their values. Both are examples of community outreach — and of virtue signaling.

So it’s once again worth asking: If forced to choose, would you prefer a sports world with a wide range of acknowledgments of what happens outside the stadium — the acknowledgments of things you like and of things you don’t — or none at all?

But wait — before you answer, let me take a crack at it myself, because I’ve been thinking about this virtue signaling stuff all summer, ever since Chris Weber posted that comment back on June 19. This essay roughly reflects the thought processes I’ve gone through while pondering the various sides of the issues. Here are a few conclusions I’ve come to:

• The difference between the sports world and the “real world” is largely a false distinction. Sports is part of the rest of the world, just like everything else. Sure, sports is escapist entertainment, but as I’ve been saying for many years, sports teams aren’t just business entities — they’re also civic entities, often cementing a common bond between generations and demographic groups. So it’s makes sense that they’d want to be engaged on matters of civic interest.

• This year, obviously, has been extraordinary in all sorts of ways, both for sports and for everything else. Given the various epic historical storylines that have intertwined in 2020, perhaps it’s not surprising that uniforms have featured an unprecedented amount virtue signaling this year. Whenever things get back to some semblance of normalcy, will the level of uni-driven virtue signaling return to pre-2020 levels? Or will this be one of those ratchet-like things, where the extent of the phenomenon goes in only one direction? Tough to say. (Update: Reader/commenter Tim Dunn notes that NBA commish Adam Silver recently said that the league’s jersey and court messaging will likely be return to pre-2020 levels next season.)

• Until about five or 10 years ago, uni-driven virtue signaling tended to reinforce mainstream, establishment institutions: the military, first responders, major holidays, and so on. These institutions may be worthy of support, but they are not the only things worthy of support. Moreover, these institutions have not always been fair to, or their benefits shared equally by, certain segments of our society. The more recent shift toward uniforms recognizing things like LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and even Earth Day seems like a long-overdue corrective. (ESPN’s Howard Bryant just wrote a new piece last week that touches upon that theme.) And as I wrote back in late March, the pandemic may help redefine our conception of heroes, which in turn may redefine which types of heroes are saluted on uniforms.

• That said, I have to say that I’ve found this year’s uni-driven virtue signaling to be a bit much. Maybe it’s because 2020 has been so exhausting on so many fronts. Or maybe it’s just that the sheer volume of messages has watered down the effect — when every game or uniform has a “special” message, the result is that none of it feels special, at least to me.

So after all of that pondering, I’ll ask myself the same question I asked all of you: If forced to choose, would I want a uni-verse with the full range of virtue signaling, or none at all?

I’ve gone back and forth on this. The way I’m feeling today, I’d probably say none at all. It’s not so much that I want the sports world to stick to sports; it’s more that I’d like the uni-verse to stick to uniforms. (Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney recently said something similar.)

But I also realize that’s probably easy for me to say (and also for Swinney to say) because I’m a straight, white, middle-class male, so wanting the uni-verse to stick to uniforms is something of a luxury for me — a luxury that not everyone shares. If I were Black, gay, poor, or female (or any combination thereof), I might feel very differently about having my identity and my interests being championed on a high-profile sports uniform. Maybe it would mean a lot to me.

As if to underscore that point, just as I was working on this section of this essay, readers Pedro N. and Chris Weber — the same Chris Weber whose months-old comment prompted this essay to begin with — had an interesting back-and-forth in the comments section of a recent Uni Watch post. The topic was the cap-inscription tribute to Dominican baseball pioneer Ozzie Virgil by the Twins’ four Dominican players. Here’s a slightly edited/streamlined version of the exchange they had:

Chris Weber: I imagine the MLB players from Venezuela, Mexico, etc. will have similar tributes in short order. Who’s to object? The precedent has been set. Educational opportunity for all fans, I guess.

Pedro N.: Would you object to Mexican or Venezuelan players having similar tributes? If so, please explain why? Or am I misinterpreting your comment?

Chris: Misinterpreted. … I’m concerned there is a point where tributes for ethnicities in sports can become diluted. For example, do we have MLB players all wear tributes for the Canadian contingent? Or the Australian? Or Curaçao? Do the sheer numbers matter? Should they? At some point, it loses its impact, wouldn’t you agree? But again, at least there’s the educational opportunity for fans to learn about the various pathfinders, regardless of their impact. How impactful each should be to matter is up for debate.

Pedro: I do agree with you to some extent [that] all tributes in sports may be reaching a point of becoming diluted (including tributes to ethnicities). But a key thing to remember is that this isn’t MLB force-feeding us more “tributes”; it’s a small group of players who took it upon themselves to honor someone they care about. From what I can tell, they didn’t even make too big of a deal about it.

[Also], at least to my knowledge, Australians and Canadians haven’t faced too much injustice in the U.S. because of where they’re from. … That point matters to me — … [the Tigers] didn’t even acknowledge that [Virgil] was Dominican [instead referring to him as Black]. For us minorities, having people learn about us and our history is important to us.

Another way to think about this is that uni-driven virtue signaling is similar to public monuments and street names — it’s part of the collective story we tell about ourselves as a society. A lot of our feelings about those stories depends on who gets to decide which stories get told, and by whom.

One thing’s for certain: There’s no shortage of worthy causes out there. Even in baseball — the major sport with the most games per season — it would be easy for a team, if it were so inclined, to use its uniforms to virtue-signal for a different worthy cause or sentiment for every single game of the year. Obviously, we haven’t reached that point yet, but it’s certainly possible.

So I’ll ask again: Is that the kind of uni-verse we want? I’m still wrestling with my own answer; you can go ahead and give yours now. (And thanks for listening through this lengthy piece!)

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Infield flies: By now you probably know that a fly made a prominent and prolonged appearance on Mike Pence’s head during last night’s vice presidential debate. What you might not know is that this insect occupation took place 13 years — almost to the day — after another notable event involving uninvited arthropods: the famous 2007 ALDS midge invasion.

Coincidence? Tough to say! But it’s worth noting that bug infestations occurring on 13-year cycles are not unheard of in the wild. I don’t know about you, but I’m circling Oct. 9, 2033 on my calendar.

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ITEM! Uni Watch magnets: I got a good deal on two small batches of Uni Watch Magnets! Perfect for sticking on your fridge, your car, your file cabinet, your locker, or wherever.

Both designs measure 3″ at their widest points. They’re thin and flexible, so they’ll conform to curved surfaces as well as flat ones.

I have 50 of the round ones and 30 of the stirrup-shaped ones. Update: The stirrup-shaped ones are now SOLD OUT. I may be able to get more at some point down the road. If you’d like to be notified when that happens, let me know.

I still have some of the round ones. Want one? Here’s the deal:

1. Price: $3 plus $1 for shipping. Limit one per person.

2. Send me the proper amount via Venmo (use @Paul-Lukas-2 as the payee), Zelle (, or Google Pay ( If you’d rather use Apple Pay or a paper check, contact me and I’ll give you the info you need. Sorry, no PayPal.

3. After sending payment, email me with your mailing address.

4. If you’re outside of the USA, contact me so I can calculate the shipping charge and arrange an alternate form of payment for you.

5. If you want to combine your purchase with an order for a Uni Watch key ring, a trading card, a seam ripper, or a chain-stitched patch, please email me and I’ll give you a price that includes a combined shipping fee for the whole shebang. (Sorry, these are the only Uni Watch items I can combine into one shipment, because our other items ship from separate locations, not from Uni Watch HQ.)

That’s it. Thanks!

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Happy National Pierogi Day! If you have somehow come into ownership of the shirt shown above, today is definitely the day to wear it (and also a good day to cook up some tasty pierogi!).

Of course, I can’t fathom how you or anyone else would have acquired such a shirt. If you’d like to discuss that lamentable state of affairs, shoot me a note and we can talk about it.

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The Ticker
By Alex Hider

Baseball News: Rays P Tyler Glasnow was wearing a belt with a palm tree on Tuesday night (from Kenneth Guckenberger). … Phillies RF Bryce Harper has been wearing the jersey of teammate J.T. Realmuto in an attempt to get Philadelphia’s front office to re-sign the catcher (from Mike Chamernik). … The Class-A Fredericksburg Nationals have unveiled a “history wall” in their stadium (from Kary Klismet). … An exhibit focused on baseball jerseys will be coming to the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts (from Andy Greenlaw). … Edwin Bonner notes that when the Yankees and Royals met in the famous 1990 Deion Sanders/Bo Jackson matchup, a Royals trainer was wearing powder blue pants to match Kansas City’s road uniforms, but was also wearing a royal blue BP jersey. … A small baseball park in Litchfield, Minn., has installed a row of seats from the old Minneapolis Metrodome (from @Natron44).

Football News: Syracuse will be wearing white helmets, orange jerseys and white pants when they host Duke on Saturday (from Jakob Fox). … Iowa state is going white-red-white this weekend (from Chad Lehman). … Maryland will be installing a larger video board in its stadium (from West Brown). … UNLV has added a white helmet to its rotation (from Mark Wallington). … Gardner-Webb is still working on scheduling a football season, but they’ve gone ahead and released photos of a new uni set (from Timmy Donahue). … Oregon made a custom football jersey for Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard (from Paul Panganiban). … Reader Jon Dies was browsing online for vintage Ohio University apparel and found a 1994 jersey with a patch commemorating 100 years of Bobcats football. … Atoka High School (Oklahoma) has added a memorial decal for a local highway patrolman who died of Covid-19 (from Paul Deaver).

Hockey News: The Senators got Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek to help introduce their third overall pick on Tuesday (from Marshall Doig). … HC Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL wore one-off jerseys honoring World Cerebral Palsy Day yesterday (from Sy Hart). … New uniforms for the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League (from @BringBackErk54).

Basketball News: According to the initial uniform scripting, the Lakers planned to wear their Kobe Bryant “Mamba” unis twice during the Finals — for Game Two and a potential Game Seven — but they’ve called an audible and will wear the black uniforms on Friday in Game Five as they try to clinch a championship (thanks to all who shared). … NBA reporter Mark Murphy says he was staying at a cabin in New Hampshire over the weekend located near where Celtics Hall of Famer Bob Cousy used to hold basketball camps. While there, he found an old Cousy-themed board game (from @HitTheGlass). … The NBA, which originally said its next season would start around Dec. 1 and then more recently said Christmas Day at the earliest, is now saying late January or February. That article also says the traditional fall-to-summer schedule may never be brought back, with a winter start date likely becoming the new normal.

Soccer News: The Athletic (hard paywall) has a deep dive on the new crest of 2022 USL Championship expansion club Queensboro FC after viewing the team’s 110-page (!) crest explainer document (from David Raglin). … A couple of Manchester United notes from our own Anthony Emerson: The club signed RW Facundo Pellistri, who will wear No. 28. The team tweeted a GIF that shows how Pellistri will look in the team’s 2020-21 kits. The club also signed LB Alex Telles, who will go FNOB. … The Swedish women’s team Rosengård will wear pink uniforms in October for breast cancer awareness (from our own Jamie Rathjen). … Also from Jamie: New jerseys, which are made from sustainable materials, for the New Zealand. … Côte d’Ivoire has opened its new national soccer stadium (from Kary Klismet). … Back in May, Puma ran a Manchester City shirt design contest. Now the winning design has been revealed, although it won’t be worn on the pitch (from Trevor Williams).

Grab Bag: The pandemic plus some internal scandals are threatening Nike’s primacy in the running industry (WaPo link) (from Tom Turner). … Pharmacy chain Rite Aid has a new logo (from John Cerone). … New uniforms for German volleyball club Berlin Recycling Volleys (from Jeremy Brahm). … A few notes from Timmy Donahue: Elmhurst Ballet School students in Edgbaston, Birmingham, are wearing new uniforms made of sustainable fabrics from ocean waste and abandoned fishing nets, and a blog has revealed the “secret meanings” behind New York’s subway signs. … Justice Rosalie Abella of the Canadian Supreme Court was wearing a sequined mask during court on Tuesday (from Mike Styczen). .. .New jerseys for France’s national rugby union teams.

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Comments (127)

    Great points, especially with the juxtaposition to other forms of entertainment like rock n roll. I kind of feel like the people who need to read this (ie the people turned off by the BLM / equality messages on NBA uniforms and the court) will not read all the way through or at least read enough to even try to understand why such messages are even necessary.

    If I lived in the US, I’d be a minority. I have relatives who migrated there, and I try to put myself in their shoes. I can kind of see why it’s important enough to support a cause that it supplants the place of my own identity in something as visible as a jersey.

    At the very least, it gets the conversation started instead of important issues getting shoved to the side because people turn to sports as a distraction. Hopefully it gets the right people to think long and hard about the reality of the situation.

    Good questions and points made today Paul. I’m in the camp of let’s tone it down on the “virtue signaling” for a bit. I hate to say it, but it’s almost refreshing to see a uniform in it’s “raw state” i.e. no special messaging, patches, NOB, throwback, fauxback, special day of the week/month, etc. I agree that social issues and causes are important, but where is the line drawn on plastering uniforms with messaging? In my opinion, it just becomes noise and the importance of the message is lost amongst all the others.

    This is where I also fall. Sports uniforms have strayed from their original purpose, to visually separate 2 competing teams. If I had the choice of none of the one-offs for any reason or all of them, I would go back to basics.
    Great piece, Paul.

    Virtue signaling on the uniforms themselves. If I had to choose between “everything on that long list, including the ruptured duck” and “none of those at all,” pretty easy. None of those at all. I would be very happy if Management could be limited to just adding a memorial patch when necessary. No American flag just because it’s 9/11, no Pinktober, just no thanks. If a player wants to rep a charity (I’m looking at Craig Biggio’s Best Buddies cap pin), put out a commercial on Instagram or television, subject to union rules and the CBA.
    But that’s just a uniform preference. Let the players roam the pediatric ward, help out the soup kitchen, pick up a megaphone while exercising a First Amendment right, etc. Coincidentally, I just read The Open Man by Dave DeBusschere. I’m 31 years old, and I was amazed that Cazzie Russell was a national guardsman during the 1970 basketball season. Athletes today are so rich and specialized, they would never join the army! (Well, Pat Tillman sure did.) What I mean to say is, civic engagement is fundamental to society, and I say that for everybody. That should be applauded and fostered. But I’d rather the uniforms stay timeless…tagged by “Set 2, 2020” on a laundry tag on the inside instead of god knows what kind of patch or special color on the outside.
    I realize there is so much toothpaste out of the tube now, but you asked what I’d rather, if I had a magic wand or something.

    I was going to say all of this, so thanks for beating me to it (and putting it more eloquently).

    In the late ’60s, it wasn’t uncommon for athletes to avoid the military draft by getting themselves placed in National Guard units. IIRC, they were required to be with their units for one weekend a month and one two-week callup per year, but the alternative was being sent to Vietnam.

    Before that, the military had its own protections for atheletes, which is why we see so many photos of ’40s pro ballplayers on service teams. It was well understood that a famous pro wouldn’t get shot at unless he really wanted to. They were more valuable to the military on propaganda and morale tours, like the actors.

    Great points today, Paul, and a topic that I think does need to be discussed.

    For a few years now, I’ve had a similar discussion with myself and a few others when it comes to the “special occasion uniforms.” As you mentioned, we’ve seen a number of teams wear camo, USA flag, pink, etc. details on their uniforms, or the uniform as a whole. While it’s easy to see the base-line intend of the design – to honor the soldiers, for one – I often think about it one level further.

    Why are you doing this? What is your reason?

    The first team that wore USA flag helmet decals probably did so out of a genuine respect for what the flag means, those who fought for it, etc. and wanted to pay tribute to that. Then it quickly became a copycat situation. So many teams are now wearing USA flag helmet decals, but is it for that genuine respect and want to honor a group, or because the last person did it?

    My line for this has often been, “At what point does a good gesture no longer be a good gesture?”

    We can all agree that cancer patients need support and research money. But is Oregon wearing an all pink uniform *solely* for those reasons, or as a “look-at-me” attention grab that just so happens to support cancer research with the fundraising of auctioning off the uniforms?

    Personally, I’ve felt that many teams have jumped on this bandwagon of special occasion uniforms only because they don’t want to be left out. South Carolina has worn Wounded Warrior camo uniforms in the past. They “clearly care for the soldiers!” But Auburn hasn’t worn an alternate uniform for these causes. Does Auburn not care about the soldiers? Auburn doesn’t wear a USA flag helmet decal in the shape of the AU logo. Does Auburn hate America? No, absolutely not. But that’s almost how it feels some of these discussions tend to go with this topic at times.

    Regarding the USA flag helmet decals, it’s always been a little humorous to me that teams are literally cutting the flag into the shape of their own logo. The flag is a rectangular shape with a specific design, not in the shape of Houston’s interlocking UH logo. If the flag touching the ground or being burned is such a bad, taboo thing for many people, then why isn’t cutting the flag into a team logo? (Don’t know if that makes sense. I hope it makes sense.)

    You wrote that “the message is what matters, not the messenger” today, and that honestly stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink this approach I’ve had the last few years. That speaks directly against my “good gesture isn’t a good gesture” line. And I appreciate that challenge. I’ll have to think about that for a few days.

    Hey Clint, I’m not Paul, but I would ask out loud, what if your “At what point is a good gesture no longer a good gesture” and Paul’s “The message is what matters, not the messenger” are versions of the same message? Or at least more consistent with each other than you think? (Instead of the latter being against your belief in the former.)

    Team A has a “matriarch” for a lack of a better term. She dies suddenly due to breast cancer that was completely undiagnosed. The team is heartbroken. Pink wristbands for everybody, bought on a whim, and her initials scribbled on them with a black Sharpie. Good gesture I think, and the message is “she’s dead and we’re sad.”

    Totally hypothetical “University of Smoregon” (normally green and gold, with occasional inexplicable black, chrome, and/or anthracite gray) wears a pink helmet in October Week 1, a pink jersey in October Week 2, pink pants in October Week 3, and all of the above in October Week 4. I’d say the gesture turns bad if you think “Smoregon’s message is ‘Never the same look twice,’ that’s a bad message, and I don’t like breast cancer awareness as a cheap excuse for new looks.” So the message matters, and the gesture is not good.

    Maybe the middle point is when the league tells everybody to put the pink helmet sticker on the back, slaps a pink logo on the game football, and swaps out all the coaches’ caps with pink-laden versions. Is a broad management directive a good gesture? Would you change your answer if Susan G. Komen literally bought their in-game commercial from the league? Then would you take the league (messenger) at their word for what the message is, or would you have your own interpretation of the message?

    Great piece today!

    NASCAR has been the home of some unintentional, unwarranted, conspiratorial virtue signaling over the years.

    For years, Jeff Gordon drove a car sponsored by DuPont, and as a way to show off their colorful history in automotive paint, his car had various multi-hued designs. His team was even referred to as “The Rainbow Warriors.” So of course, some fans decided he must be gay, and all kinds of nonsense (mostly negative) ballooned from there. Ugh.

    Another example: years later, when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was changing teams, he had to leave his popular number 8 behind. He chose 88 as his new number. Great, let’s get back in the car and on the track. Except… the number 88 has been co-opted by white supremacist groups as a super-secret substitution for “HH” (H is the 8th letter of the alphabet), with “HH’ in turn being shorthand for “Heil Hitler.” So, of course, some folks had to toss that conspiratorial nonsense around (in this case, some of it supporting the idea). Pretty much anyone in the sport would say Junior is a decent guy, and the number has no significance beyond being his old number twice. Ugh again.

    “All or Nothing at All” seems to be a false dichotomy to me. Like much in the modern world, moderation is becoming a lost idea.

    That said, it doesn’t bother me too much; the fact that the current flurry is less “corporate” feeling – i.e., feeling like it’s a promotion by someone – is a plus in my book. Examples: the revelation that the military paid for military-related NFL promotions, the fact that a certain charity sues other charities in order to “own” a particular cause and also happens to sponsor this cause in pro sports, etc.

    “All or Nothing at All” seems to be a false dichotomy to me. Like much in the modern world, moderation is becoming a lost idea.

    Except this is a thought experiment, designed to inspire reflection and conversation.

    Yeah, except by making it “all” rather than “some”, it makes “none” the only reasonable choice.

    I agree that the amount of organic impetus behind it impacts my feelings quite a bit.

    While “GI Joke” makes me a little uncomformtable from a semantic aspect, I hate the corporate astroturf forces behind it with the passion of 1000 suns.

    If you want to appreciate the military, vote for higher VA benefits, giveaway free tickets, draw attention to the actual plight of military families not sell merch and donate .001%.

    I just want to say that this was outstanding writing on a complex subject – layering nuance upon nuance, objective observation on a subjective matter. Superb stuff.

    I wonder how memorial ribbons/patches fit in this category of ‘virtue signaling’. I mean if it’s not related to the team/sport (and maybe even it is), doesn’t it connote sympathy for your fellow humans? Isn’t sympathy a virtue? Also, were yellow ribbons even a thing before the Tony Orlando song?

    I’m reminded when UNC’s basketball coach didn’t put American flag patches on the team’s uniforms immediately after the start of the Gulf War (1991) and asked why we don’t put on patches to support social causes like homelessness (link $).

    I don’t have answers, and I haven’t thought about it as much as you Paul, but it seems to me if you allow some you’re going to have to allow all. OK, maybe not all, but where is the line drawn, and who draws the line?

    Would I like to see all the “virtue signalling” or none of it? Honestly, none.

    My rationale: when there are different jerseys, etc., with different wordings and colour schemes, it tends to dilute the product. Sports are brands, and when you’re constantly introducing differing styles of that brand, you’re ultimately diminishing it.

    So while I largely support the causes the teams promote (biggest exception being the jingoism that is the military (as a Canadian, it irks me to no end that teams like the Blue Jays are playing along with that jingoism — we’re in Canada, stop copying the American military fetish)), I think we’re getting to the point where we need to draw a line. And to me, that line is just have the uniforms and scrap the patches and messaging. Team-specific patches for memorials, anniversaries, etc., are still OK.

    In the baseball section you make reference to a “trainer”, proper use would be Athletic Trainer.

    As a black male, I absolutely abhor the phrase “virtue signaling”. Just like the phrase “SJW” is employed to essentially trivialize the concerns of someone who advocates on the behalf of others, calling these messages of support for people who LOOK LIKE ME “virtue signaling” basically tells me that you disagree with said messages.

    Is it “virtue signaling” when we have military flyovers before every game? When the color guard marches? When we are asked to stand and applaud when members of the military are acknowledged at a sporting event? I’m guessing Chris would say no.

    I’ve never served in the military. But I don’t find it offensive when I’m asked to momentarily stand and show appreciation.

    For people who look like me, it does send a message when sports leagues find this particular point in time critical enough to change their designs to let people like me know we are seen and heard. That our pain (which isn’t new) of living in a society where our lives have historically NOT been given the same value of others is acknowledged.

    That, my friends, is not “virtue signaling”. It’s called “caring”.

    If you’re so offended by leagues showing that they care about issues that directly and consistently effect their players and fans, then yeah, you should absolutely go watch something else.

    This is easy: none at all*. I’m a uni-traditionalist; I don’t think there should be anything on uniforms except the team name (baseball/basketball) or crest (hockey), numbers, and maybe a stripe or some piping or a contrasting collar. Anything more than that is clutter.

    I’m even excluding tasteful, well-designed patches like the Cardinals’ memorials or yesterday’s Wild anniversary patch. On their own, they look nice, but on a jersey they just look cluttered. There are a handful of uniform modifications I’m willing to allow, but they’re generally for team accomplishments: soccer teams adding a star above their crest, or MLB teams wearing gold trim after winning championships, for example. Maybe a black stripe like the NBA did for David Stern.

    What I am in favor of is individual, organic expression. The Ozzie Virgil thing is a great example. Za’Darius Smith’s Breonna Taylor undershirt the other night is another one. Or the way guys like Tebow put Bible verses on their eye black. These enhance the uniform, because their sincere. A player might have pink trim on their uniform during October, but I don’t know if that means he actually cares about breast cancer, or if that’s just what the equipment manager stuck in his locker on that given day. The NBA’s social justice NOBs are probably the closest official manifestation of this, but the execution was not great.

    To be a bit of a curmudgeon, back in the day, I feel like most of the things we wear patches or one-off jerseys for today would have been handled as a ceremony rather than a uniform modification. Team anniversaries, memorials to owners or former players, patriotic stuff – this is all better handled by having pre-game festivities. It works for the national anthem.

    That points to why I think uni-clutter has become more common recently. Most of us don’t consume sports as events anymore. Especially this year, we can’t attend in person, and a lot of people don’t even watch full games on TV anymore, especially for out-of-market or non-game of the week games. Instead, we consume sports as highlights, on SportsCenter or the internet. Still photos of sports are probably bigger than ever – it’s how Uni-Watch leads every article, along with SBNation and most other sports media, and photos are shared widely on social media. But as the uni-detectives here know, photos where the uniforms are consistent from game to game and year to year are hard to find information about. If the photo that led this article had been taken in a different year, I would have no idea about Landry Shamet’s or Alex Caruso’s thoughts about race relations, unless I’d watched that particular game and seen a pre-game ceremony (or you know, googled them). Going forward, though, bite-sized information is probably going to be the norm, so naturally people are going to try to cram as much into that bite as possible.

    In 20 years, Uni Watch is going to replace Guess the Game from the Scoreboard with Guess the Game from the Uni Patches. At least it keeps you busy, Paul!

    Just whom is that “noise lost on”? Because as a black male, I don’t get the opportunity to “opt out” of being black and suffering the societal consequences that come along with that.

    Great point that I’m glad Paul touched on (very well written piece, Paul). If you’re able to get “lost in the noise,” you may very well be someone who needs to hear the message most. That said, I would prefer uniforms be void of any messaging (including ads and makers marks), but as a straight white male, I realize my point of view maybe shouldn’t be the loudest on this topic. I wholeheartedly support sports teams for being socially active in this way, though I would prefer to see messaging replace advertisements on playing surfaces and in stadiums. One could argue that a message on a tarp covering a section in left field is more visible that on a jersey, hat, etc. anyway.

    I despise all the types of uniform virtue signaling. Every type you mentioned above. Also, like Chris, I have stopped watching professional sports.

    A few thoughts on an interesting piece, Paul:

    1) Jackie Robinson Day absolutely belongs in the conversation with other uniform/sports messaging. “42” isn’t a thing because Jackie Robinson was the Wayne Gretzky of baseball; it’s because of (or can’t be separated from) the wider societal context around him. Ditto Clemente and the Negro Leagues.

    2) I’m with Ed above that “all or none” is firmly in false dichotomy territory. I think we see a lot of this in a lot of places these days – either “my opponent does some variety of X, and therefore I am justified in doing a different X” or “I don’t do some variety of X, and therefore my opponent is not justified in doing a different X”. Both are deeply flawed. And so, if forced to pick, I pick “all”, with the strong caveat that I’m going to heavily judge the relevant group on both their acts of commission and of omission.

    2a) The other key problem with “none” is that “none” is typically a stand-in for “I am comfortable with the current balance of power / state of affairs” – which isn’t “none” at all. Particularly when, through its enforcement, it tacks on “…and you should be, too.”

    Just to clarify: I fully acknowledge that all/none is a false choice. That’s why I called it a thought experiment. My intent was to neutralize the content of the various virtue signaling examples (i.e., to keep people from cherrypicking the ones they like and discarding the ones they don’t) and get them to instead just address the *concept* of virtue signaling. If you’re OK with some of it, would you be OK with all of it? And if not, why not?

    “none” is typically a stand-in for “I am comfortable with the current balance of power / state of affairs”

    Well stated. That’s what I tried to address at the end of the piece, when I said “none” was easy for me (and Dabo) to choose. You said it better than I did.

    I don’t like the symbols and “virtue signalling” that are organized from the top down. I don’t need a corporation telling me how important an issue is. It’s just done as part of the team’s marketing message. It’s designed to give me good feelings about the team or league and not as a sincere effort to talk about the topic.

    Individual gestures, tributes or the choice not to play at all mean a lot more.

    But of course if everyone can do whatever they want to the uniform then it’s not really a uniform anymore. I’m kind of OK with that, but totally understand when people aren’t.

    I don’t mind the “virtue signaling” when it comes to uniforms. Athletes don’t live in a vacuum. They are human beings, just like the rest of us, and the organizations that employ them should care about issues that concern them. So yeah, a BLM patch is fine. The names of people who died at the hands of police violence on a rear helmet bumper is fine. The American flag on your lapel is fine.

    My only issue is the designs. If you’re gonna do stars & stripes for July 4th, just make it look better. If you’re gonna honor the military with camo, give some thought the the aesthetics. Uni honoring MLK? Cool, but don’t botch it. Hispanic Heritage? De nada. Just stick the landing.

    And oh yeah, unless it’s football, home team wears white.

    I have to say, today’s edition is the single best thing I’ve read on this topic and, if I may–as an avid uni-reader, the single best thing I’ve ever read that you’ve written. Unbelievably well put.

    I don’t know my answer to your question, but I have wrestled with it as well. What struck me the most was the part about how it’s easy for you to take Dabo’s position being as you’re a white, middle-class, straight man. I am too and I had a similar boomerang effect when I originally saw Dabo’s comments. I agreed but disagreed at the same time. You rock the house. Keep doing what you’re doing.

    I 100% agree, Mike. Not only is the topic timely and relevant, but the depth that Paul went into was other-worldly. Every new “but before you answer that question…” made my brain work in new and engaging ways.

    Excellent, thought provoking piece, Paul. Well written and well thought out… and I loved the “before you answer that…” stream of thought. I started to answer in my head and you put me in my place to listen to multiple sides of the argument.

    HERE IS MY OPINION … this is my thought. I am in no way saying this is how things should be:

    Plenty of people have said, “I use sports to escape reality,” and I vehemently disagree, sports are part of reality. I often say that “reality TV” like “Survivor,” “Real Housewives” etc. are either game shows or un-scripted dramas. Sports is the true reality TV; you see what actually happens in real time by real people. So, to think that those who play the game don’t have a position on social issues is short-sighted. Or, in a worse view, to say that these athletes who often are largely representative of groups of color are there to simply entertain you is juvenile at best and racist at worst. So, it comes part and parcel that uni-based social messaging is an extension of the social awareness of these athletes.

    I often tell these people who have said, “I stop watching the XXX because of the disrespect of XXX (the flag, the anthem, the military)” or “keep politics out of sports,” to just ignore the parts they aren’t interested in. The uni-based social messaging is an extension to an extent of the kneeling during the anthem, etc. If you don’t like that part of it, just ignore it. But to say that messaging to end racism or treat people equally is political and should be kept out of sports is also very short sighted. Sports have historically be early inclusion point for social barriers to be broken down. The integration of sports came earlier than it did in other parts of society, often, so sports is very much a catalyst for our social reform and therefore has a place as a billboard for it. But you can ignore those messages. While many of us hate the ads on the NBA jerseys, I’d imagine, we’ve largely ignored them. I couldn’t tell you who most of the NBA ads are for. If you need to, you can ignore the “Equality” message on the back of every Dallas Mavericks’ jersey. On a counterpoint, for those who say they don’t want these political messages that fighting for equality, fairness and respect isn’t political, it’s simple human decency. If you are on the other side of people being treated equally, then I have a problem with you.

    On our unis, we’ve often put on American patriotic “virtue signaling” images. The flag, flag-based unis, etc. If the BLM, Vote, End Racism messaging is unappealing to you, then the American patriotic unis should make you cringe too. Outside the NFL, our sports teams are made up of a large population of non-American players (29 percent of MLB, roughly 33 percent of the NBA, a whopping 74 percent of the NHL, 58 percent of the MLS and data on the WNBA wasn’t easy to find in a simple web search). So to force non-Americans to succumb to wearing patriotic attire and stand for our anthem is just as cringeworthy to me as it is to some to see “End Racism” on the back of a uniform.

    Lastly, for those of us who, like myself, don’t worry about if we’ll be treated equally, or worry about politicians suppressing our votes or creating boundaries where our collective voice doesn’t matter, or even more importantly don’t have to worry that our potential interaction with the police might go haywire quickly, it’s very easy to say that you don’t like these messages. For many of these athletes, they are representatives of their community, not just their local community but their greater community of color. They, like it or not, are the role models for their community and they deem it important to stand up for what is right, even if it’s just a broad-based uni-themed message. Change is hard. It has to start somewhere.

    As far as my own position, I have probably watched less sports on a whole lately. I’m kind of in the camp, especially of football and baseball, of how can we actually be doing this. But with the March-July absence of sports, I found I didn’t really need it. I had been watching simply as habit or to be part of a conversation that I wasn’t really being a part of. Strangely, I’ve probably watched more NBA than normal because the basketball, in my opinion, has been largely very good. I found it more entertaining and gripping than usual, almost NCAA like in excitement. I’ve found baseball boring. I need the fan element and the idea that I COULD go to a game to make it more interesting. The NFL has been sloppy through a month and I’ve struggled with the NFL (head trauma, violence) for a while. And I’ve probably watched as much NHL/WNBA/MLS as I normally do, which is a minute or two of a game if it’s on in passing. My limited viewership HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH UNI-MESSAGING.

    Part of why I started following Uni-Watch, and will continue to follow, is that the uniform isn’t, in actuality, a necessary part of the game. So it’s essentially trivial. You can play a basketball game without unis, but you can’t play without a hoop and ball. But the details of this arguably unnecessary item have been entertaining me for years. I created my own unis for my own make believe teams as a kid (not just drawing them, but taking white t-shirts, dying them the color I want and then drawing logos and numbers on with fabric paint … if I wasn’t an anti-horder, I’d have made a great feature with my drawings or actual home-made jerseys from the Memphis Musclemen, Arlington Arrows, Lincoln Lions (who looked like the Sonics), Oklahoma City Owls, Olympia Oceans (who were the Olympians until I got an imaginary cease and desist letter from the IOC because 10-year-old me figured out you couldn’t use Olympic imagery), Washington St. Winds, Albany Americans, or any of the teams in my United States Basketball League which obviously had to be alliterative).

    Just want to say I love all of this.

    I’m torn on the part about making non-Americans stand for the anthem, wear the flag, etc. On the one hand, it’s wrong. On the other hand, there’s a part of me that thinks that a player who is okay earning American dollars ought to be able to stand quietly for a few minutes while the National Anthem is played. But I think that’s a conversation for a different time and place.

    Also, I can’t even tell you how much I love the idea that you got an imaginary cease and desist letter from the IOC.

    The national anthem conversation is one I would be very interested in. I haven’t heard a single reason for continuing that tradition other than it is a tradition.

    We don’t play the anthem before movies or concerts, why play it before sporting events?

    I went as part of a delegation with a college basketball team to travel overseas to Italy. I brought four copies of the anthem for our four games (figuring I wouldn’t get the CDs back). We used one, our game against the junior national team. I’ve never understood why we play it all the time either.

    The one distinction I think that was left out of this analysis is that the use of the term ‘virtue signaling’ as pejorative has coincided with the rise of social media. What the term is meant to call out is not the sincere use of a platform to raise awareness of an issue, but that the person or entity WANTS CREDIT for displaying such awareness. So many of the examples above don’t track with this explanation because either social media didn’t exist (advent of rock and roll) or the people displaying the message didn’t care if it got recognition, the display was for personal or internal purposes (the writing on the Twins’ players hats).

    The culture that people are trying to fight back against is not so much the issues or movements that are at the forefront of today’s political landscape, but more of the notion that looking like you care about them is more important to too many people than actually caring about them. The MLB was plenty quick to show they care on social media by posting the BLM patches on Twitter and Instagram (see how much we care! give us credit!) but what is much less known is what the league has actually done BEYOND virtue signaling to help advance BLM’s stated goals, whether it be thru donations, programs, or additional support/policies. The same could be said for MLB’s Stars/Stripes veterans program, which has been covered at length on here and is mostly correct in calling out the league’s hypocrisy in its lack of transparency.

    Another great example would be to try to guess just how many individuals posted a black square on Instagram back in June for #blackouttuesday that actually spent any sort of time, money, or effort actually supporting organizations ostensibly dedicated to the cause, vs just posted the square for likes and attention.

    Too much of today’s political landscape is political theater. And it deserves to be called out as such. It hasn’t prevented me from turning games on, but a good amount of is does make me roll my eyes.

    Bud, I specifically said near the outset that I was trying to strip the term of its current cultural baggage because, as I also said, the term as frequently used is a bad-faith exercise in mind-reading.

    In short: Just because you think something is theater doesn’t automatically mean it’s theater. Today’s discussion was meant to remove presumed intent and mind-reading from the equation so we can just assess the messaging on its own terms. Let’s please try to stick to that. Thanks.

    Trying to strip the term of its cultural baggage I think in and of itself is a bad-faith argument though, because that baggage is why it’s such a hot-button term right now.

    For example, automatically assuming that athletes visiting hospitals are there because they care about the kids and not just for free publicity is also a form of mind-reading, but in the other direction. But trying to strip a real-world action from its assumed intent is a lot harder to do compared to a social media post.

    MLB’s Twitter and Instagram COULD have posted the real-world action they’re taking to support BLM (‘we’ve donated x amount of $ to y charities’ or ‘we’ve started the x foundation, aimed at the advancement of y people in z types of living situations’), either instead of or in addition to the pictures they posted of players wearing the patch. Then the advocacy would’ve been a lot more tangible. Fans are then free to agree or disagree with said advocacy, but the term ‘virtue signaling’ is used most often as way to point out when people or organizations are participating in the political theater aspect without wanting or having to participate in the ACTUAL politics surrounding the theater.

    The article from a year or two ago with a reader who deep dived into MLB’s donation records regarding their Memorial Day merchandise is probably the best example of this theater. MLB says they’re donating money to x charity, but the transparency of those donations is incredibly difficult to come by. The ads trying to get fans to buy the Memorial Day caps, however, were very much NOT hard to come by. And the ads themselves were pretty clear in their rhetoric, suggesting that purchasing said hats were a form of ‘support’ or ‘honor’ towards the troops, despite a lack of evidence that it supported troops in any way. It’s not hard to deduce that in that instance, that the APPEARANCE of supporting the troops was/is more important to MLB than actual support for the troops. It is textbook ‘virtue signaling’, by today’s definition of the term.

    Really top notch piece today, and a really important topic. I totally agree that throwing the term “virtue signaling,” much like using the term “social justice warrior” is a way of minimizing a cause/message. As a leftist in ideology, I of course prefer the recent messaging on equality to all the camo/honor the military type of virtue signaling, but in this case I have to think whether I’m being hypocritical in saying one is ok and the other is not. I’m not totally sure if it is hypocritical of me, as the black lives movement (despite assertions by many) is more of a human rights issue than political one, while the military stuff seems to go beyond just being patriotic and to actively promote a certain type of nationalism that veers into the political ideology realm to me.

    While I respect the displays, I do fear that they’re just becoming something to be displayed, like the flag after 9/11, and they become something that is “just there” as opposed to being something that spurs meaningful action/societal change.

    Good post. Great replies and discussion.

    I think I’m in the “none” category. As a coach and even a league administrator, I refuse to dive into any of the above listed topics during competition. As a former athlete, I never once wore the flag, camo, pink, etc. I do use sport to escape from “the real world.” I don’t expect others to do the same, but that’s how it is for me.

    I don’t treat another team or player differently if they want to wear pink. It’s not for me though. I will refuse to wear camo in sport, as I believe it’s really worn by two groups: military (or similar) and hunters (which is a different camo than what’s normally worn in sport anyway).

    If people don’t agree with how I feel in this, that’s okay. If they feel they are going to use sport as their platform for [insert cause] then that’s okay too. It won’t affect how I view or enjoy sport. I’m primarily a soccer guy, and I know how much soccer has done to impact the world and individuals. Just do not expect me to follow on the causes when it comes to sport. Do not force me to wear or demand I feel, act, or think the same way you do.

    My major issue with sports teams and leagues espousing justice issues is that a corporation is not a person. Just who exactly is supporting Black Lives Matter, or Breast Cancer Awareness, or the Military? Because saying MLB, the NFL, the NBA, or the NHL support such-and-such a cause borders on meaningless for me. I can certainly see how, as a member of a marginalized group, one could see some sense of pride or unity in a team paying tribute to your struggles or your heritage in some way. But, by that same token, isn’t having teams where your favourite players come from myriad backgrounds accomplishing that more organically (e.g. we’re black, white, Hispanic, gay and straight, men and women, but we’re all Bears fans)?

    It just doesn’t matter to me that “the Seahawks support X” or “the Lakers support Y”. Sports leagues are institutions made up of hundreds of different players, officials, managers, staff all with different backgrounds and opinions. Why should the league pretend that it is all for some particular position? And that goes for safe, tried-and-true issues like wearing a flag patch and playing the national anthem before games to the relatively novel issues of LGBTQIA+, Black Lives Matter, and initiatives like “My Cause My Cleats”.

    Players, on the other hand, can and should stand for what they believe in in the public sphere, and leverage their fame to make change. If Lebron James of the Los Angeles Lakers puts on a yellow jersey and hosts a rally to get everyone in his community to vote, that’s not only acceptable but noble. But putting vote on his jersey in-game seems insincere and corporate, no matter how honestly held his beliefs on the matter are.

    I guess my point comes down to this – sports are a great unifier and a way to engage with everyone civically (that’s why events like Jackie Robinson day absolutely SHOULD be celebrated – since it celebrates when a very important wall to engagement came down). By making special days for various special interests, no matter if the cause is good or not, you place a barrier to that unity.

    We have a distressing habit of taking very worthy, very necessary causes, and corporatizing them. Thomas Frank’s The Conquest of Cool documents the deliberate effort to rob the 1960s counterculture movement of its moral power, by adopting its slogans and style to sell products. Eric Hoffer notes that Americans are lousy at mass movement, because “What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation.”

    The genesis of this summer’s protests was real and raw and necessary. Carefully stitched slogans on the backs of professional athletes feel calculated, almost cynical. It’s light years removed from Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City: there’s no power behind it, no passion.

    LeBron James is a fine example of the power and influence athletes can have in driving social change. There are not enough who fully utilize their position to speak out on social issues.

    Think about the courage it took for Theron Fleury to speak out about the abuse he suffered as a boy, and think about how his speaking out started a very difficult conversation about abuse in youth sports. If a couple of young women athletes have not stood up and accused Larry Nasser, the horrific abuse girls suffered under the oversight of US gymnastics would still be happening. We can’t have enough athletes advocating for social justice and social change.

    I’ve just never seen social change happen with just a couple of slogans sewn onto a tank top.

    Thank you – that was my initial reaction as well.

    On the other hand, I do think that it’s worth noting when corporations adopt social causes, because it reflects public consciousness (or at least their perception of the public consciousness).

    When corporations started selling rainbow Oreos, I knew that gay rights had made it to the mainstream.

    Great piece, Paul! Really well done, and I love the comments that have followed.

    I find that the phrase “virtue signaling” makes me cringe, although I don’t disagree with Bud’s comment about why people use the phrase in a critical way. You’ve really nailed what it is that bothers me about it, which is: is replacing a NOB with “Equality” any different from wearing a pink ribbon, or a player adding a Bible verse his eye black? No, I don’t think it is.

    As for the “all or none” question, if eliminating social awareness messaging from uniforms meant we also eliminated military flyovers and Pinktober end zones and camouflage uniforms, then I vote for none. I’m in the camp that says I’d rather see the individual players come up with their own tributes.

    Military fly-overs, “tributes,” and “salutes to service” aren’t virtue signalling. They’re well-orchestrated propaganda.

    Thanks as always, Paul, for a well-reasoned and thoughtful (and thought-provoking!) discussion starter. Of course the “all or nothing” is a false choice, and most of us realize that there’s a lot of room for nuanced takes on the issue. If we limit any, shall we say, “non-team” or “non-sports” related items from uniforms, we miss out on valuable opportunities for issue education or worthy tributes, among other things.

    I will say, I wish people got more worked up about nakedly commercial additions to uniforms (advertising) than they do about add-ons promoting causes with which they do not agree.

    Thanks for your nuanced look at this. I’m a big believer in the pendulum of politics, and this reminds me of this. If I’m being honest, I think this has swung too far with all the messages in place of NOBs on the NBA uniforms. However, as a 10 year old boy I thought it was great when I saw John Carlos and Tommy Smith raise their black leathered gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics. Am I now the old guy who has a problem with people rocking the status quo? I hope not.

    Great topic and a well thought out piece. Something I think about a lot.

    League or team-led initiatives are something I question. The worst racism I have experienced in my life came directly from hockey – and it’s not even close. So when I see the NHL or other hockey leagues doing various initiatives that require players and coaches to participate, I’m pretty skeptical as I know many, if not most of the players don’t believe the cause they are forced to promote.

    But then I think, change has to start somewhere, so maybe it’s good. And. If a player has to squirm because he has to wear a rainbow Pride jersey or something he doesn’t agree with, then it’s his fault for being a bad person in the first place.

    And so on a personal note, for a couple of years the Canucks have worn Lunar/Chinese New Year jerseys for the pre-game warm up. Vancouver has a high Asian population, so it would easy to just say this was a smart marketing ploy. This year they came up with a really great design that was playful and fun, combining the skate logo with a rat for Year of the Rat. And so while I’m cynical and suspicious of all of this stuff, and know they are just pandering to Asian people for marketing purposes, something happened that I didn’t expect: the design actually made me feel good, based on the racism I’ve experienced in the game. Ten, twenty years ago it never would have happened, and Asians and other people of colour were simply not welcome in the game, period. Probably still aren’t for the most part.

    So Paul, you did well to capture the conflicting thoughts I have experienced in all of this, and still have no clear answer to.

    “The worst racism I have experienced in my life came directly from hockey – and it’s not even close.”

    Sadly – based on experiences of friends of mine with their kids in (very very elite level) hockey, the only thing that’s different in 2020 is that the racists in hockey wear anti-racism shirts. And now how to be quieter about it.

    The number of minor hockey kids and parents that came forward with stories after Bill Peters got fired was incredible.

    I personally love the messaging, but I think the NBA could have executed it better. Imo it looks kind of ugly when draped over the back of the jersey, whereas in the NFL it actually looks like part of the uni.

    Three things:
    1) My initial gut reaction was to say none. I can see the well intentioned meaning, but how much of it is to get attention (which others have mentioned) and how much of it is to sell merch? Just having those thoughts makes the whole thing feel forced and inauthentic.

    2)The more I thought about it though the more I wondered if my reaction is because I strongly dislike seeing my favorite teams (the University of Michigan and the Yankees) wearing anything but their traditional uniforms and colors. I will never wear anything to support my teams that isn’t Maize and Blue or blue/white/grey so anything outside of that realm doesn’t appeal to me. I wonder if others who also root for teams with more traditional uniforms feel the same way. I even have the same reaction for teams I don’t root for, but have “classic” uniforms (e.g. Packers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cubs).

    3) I have a real problem with a league (or conference or team) mandating virtual signaling. To me, it leaves players (especially those that don’t get paid) in a position where they have no choice but to participate. What power does a college (or high school) player who refuses to wear a military appreciation/police/whatever decal or uniform have? They might be ostracized by their teammates and coaches, lose their starting spot or position on the team, and probably be called out by their own fans and fans of other teams. I prefer the spontaneous recognition that has occurred in the past or in the Twins example Paul cited. To me, it appears more meaningful and authentic than the NBA limiting players to picking messages from a list (or telling Jimmy Butler he has to wear a NOB). When I see an inscription on a hat or shoes I am more likely to be interested in the message than a team releasing yet another alternate jersey that looks like an American flag.

    Thank you for putting together such a thoughtful and thorough article today. I’ve struggled with the same feelings and I often have gone back and forth. Your music example was a great way of providing a different context to the conversation – one that many people can relate to.

    After several discussions with my wife, I’ve personally come to the conclusion that the sports world, just like all of us, needs to seize the opportunity to fight for social justice. As you said yourself (and I fit into the same categories) as cis, straight, white, men we have the luxury of turning on the tv to escape… and when we turn it off we return to our privileged world. Many people don’t have that luxury. They may live under such conditions where when they turn off the tv their lives are a huge struggle or where watching sports isn’t of value to begin with because of the difficulty of their situation.

    If people and organizations can use their platforms and popularity to bring attention to the issues that face our society – Let’s go for it! Can it be tiresome? Yes. But, it is what’s right.

    I’ll always support a uni element for a worth cause over another GD advertisement.

    Is a “cis, straight, white, man” privileged if he is suffering from terminal cancer; or if he is grieving for a child that committee suicide; or if he is addicted to opiates or if he has been unemployed for 9 months and is on the verge of losing his home and is unable to feed his family; or the business he invested everything in is dying . . . . .

    Labeling and judging anybody by anything but their character and actions robs an individual of their dignity.

    This nation’s worst sins are based on the idea that a person should be judged on immutable characteristics and things that person has no control over.

    Indeed. You can bet that a cis/white/straight/middle-class male has a statistically higher chance of having access to much better cancer treatment than someone who doesn’t fit that profile.

    My point is that it is wrong to categorize people by immutable characteristics. This is whether you are a cis/white/straight/middle class male or an un-cis/purple/crooked/upper class female.

    Your views on a particular matter are based on experience, study, and observation – not the color of your skin or your genitalia.

    Economic circumstances tend to be a better indicator of “privilege” (and quality of cancer treatment) then anything else.

    Certainly being a cis/white/straight/middle class male does not put someone at a place of privilege on the campus of Amherst, Harvard or Yale.

    Yes, it does. It really, really does. If not in admissions, then in the way they’re treated when they arrive.

    My point is that it is wrong to categorize people by immutable characteristics.

    And yet our society does that constantly. We just decide not to notice it when the benefit goes to cis/white/straight/middle-class males


    Thanks for the reply. I am a cis, straight, white man and have had plenty of disadvantages in my own life growing up. I grew up in poverty. My father was an alcoholic and passed away when I was young. My mother has twice had cancer. You’re correct, my descriptors don’t necessarily protect me from disadvantages or tragedy in life.

    However, looking back on where I have come from… I’m a 40 year old man who has played by “society’s rules” and I now find myself what society would define as a well educated, gainfully employed, upper middle class citizen.
    There were definitely hurdles that I had to overcome because of where I came from. However, I would be very shortsighted to say that my cis, straight, white maleness hasn’t helped me along the way.

    You’re misunderstanding privilege. No one has ever said that a cis straight white man won’t experience any hardships or misfortunes. Those things are a part of life.

    The difference is that the chances of a cis straight white man experiencing hardships as a direct result of his race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. are slim. The same can’t be said for people who are in the minority of those demographic categories.

    Great points made Paul, I agree that we can lump the current ‘virtue signaling’ efforts in with the past efforts to honor military, breast health awareness, etc but I see the key difference being the merchandise aspect. The MLB especially has gotten carried away with how many different ways it can introduce camo patterns or stars and stripes on a hat, and they profit from selling it. Thankfully, (at least I don’t think) the NBA isn’t selling jerseys with these slogans on the back, so I find it a little more meaningful of a gesture, if still falling under the category of ‘virtue signaling’. That’s where I think anything falls apart, when people and organizations are doing something like this for profit. There are plenty of counterarguments I’m sure and love the debate, but I think that is a big differentiation, and while I personally don’t like practically any of these alterations made to the uniforms, I’m more tolerant of ones that aren’t done with the bottom line in mind. Would love to hear from anyone who sees it differently!

    Holy crap, wonderful post today. So thought provoking in these times. If faced with all or none, i would say all. People and organizations expressing important issues via their respective forums is a good thing, in spite of the possibility/probability of insincerity. The message is still there.

    I was just having a similar conversation with my in-law about this very thing: she said something like “I wish they would shut up and stick to sports, particularly since these athletes are among our most privileged.” I always find it odd when people find these messages upsetting or annoying to the point they find it difficult to enjoy the sport. To me, messaging or not, the game is still there to be enjoyed. Just like content on this site, you can filter out what doesn’t resonate. While the messages on unis are things I can’t help but see, I have free will to decide what I wish. Just because the issue may not be important to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a space.

    Excellent post today, Paul. I echo the applause sentiments of many others leaving comments. I do have one thought, and I apologize if others mentioned it already (I didn’t read every comment): what if the uniforms remained untouched, but the courts, fields, and rinks were plastered with graphics for various causes?

    I think the uniform add-ons might be best left for retail, not for the field of play. Let’s be honest, we can’t clearly read any of them on television anyway, and the messages on basketball jerseys push the player names down, which actually makes the game harder to follow because their names are difficult to see.

    I think fans would actually enjoy customizing a jersey online before ordering, where they could add patches, messaging, different colors, etc. Yes, the jersey would cost more, but if it caught on, I’m sure that prices would come down eventually.

    Anyway, that’s just my two cents from a dad guy in the suburbs.

    I don’t think it’s any coincidence that uniform ads coincided with the rise of selling replica jerseys to fans. It’s also when manufacturers started putting their own logos on uniforms, after all.

    Sure, it’s good for companies to have their name emblazoned on photos of the greats in action, but the real market penetration comes when fans pick up an advertisement and walk around town as living billboards.

    Given the choice of ads on on-field uniforms or ads on replicas, I’m pretty sure that every company would take the latter.

    Great thought piece.

    Random thoughts:

    1. In general there is a great unravelling of the ties that bind us. The continued politicization of all aspects of our lives is not healthy for free society. This saddens me.

    2. If it is a choice between all or none I choose all. There are certain things that have become traditions that I believe are beneficial. It is important that Jackie Robinson be memorialized. I am a Boston College graduate, parent and fan. It is important that BC memorializes Wells Crowther and Pete Frates because they embody one of the school’s mottos: “Men and woman for Others”. It is important that the Yankees and the Mets wear first responder hats on 9/11 because we should not only forget the sacrifice they represent but also for at a time we were unified in grief and gratitude. The new Atlanta MLK uniforms ,while not a tradition, are a great representation of what MLK’s home city strives to be. The list could go on, but in my view, the good outweighs the not so good.

    3. I will continue to be more offended by the true uniform atrocities that plague sports. For example: Colleges that continue to wear regular uniforms that are not the school colors, the Boston Bruins for ending the most unique uniform signature in hockey – socks of a different color from the jersey, football unitard look, lack of stirrups, the Red Sox red undershirt with the blue cap, numbers of a color that do not contrast enough from the shirt so they are unreadable to fans, etc . . . .

    Good piece and worth discussing. I have no issue with “virtue signaling” – it can be meaningful if done correctly and with care. I think it loses its meaning with regard to frequency. Jackie Robinson Day is meaningful because it is clear as to what the message is and is only done once a season. But, to quote Gertrude Stein: A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. At some point whatever message is being sent (and basically any message, whatsoever, virtuous or not) loses its meaning or its potency upon enough repetition. That raises the question: does message (political or otherwise) that appears on a uniform (or in some other area – e.g., arena flooring, etc.) constantly lose its meaning? And if it does lose its meaning because of this frequency, maybe it is worth it to do it less.

    well done sir, very much enjoyed that.

    i’ll be quick on my thoughts, and then flee the comments before i start read them and get steamed. for me messaging boils down to this: if you don’t want people to kneel, don’t make them stand in the first place.

    I don’t think I have necessarily a complete, fleshed out thought on this, but here’s some of what’s going through my brain:

    1. I actually think it’s impossible for us, as Uniwatchers, to totally “turn off” messaging about virtue in uniforms.

    Consider what we say about how players normally wear their uniforms: We admire players who have well-tailored, well-fitting uniforms. We praise baseball players who eschew pajama pants for stirrups and heap extra praise on those for whom the stirrups are appropriately worn or have stripes. We negative opinions of teams who bend to the latest trend or wear different uniforms every week to catch the eye; we even attempt to label said teams as “Pepsi” or “Coke” and so on.

    Because we’re passionate about the uniform and the message it sends, to us, the uniform *itself* — how it’s worn, what’s chosen by teams, etc. — is a display of virtue, whether it be a respect for history, visual integrity, one’s level of caring about looking appropriate for the culture of the sport, etc.

    I get that what we’re discussing is drawing a line between in-sport virtue and virtues beyond the field of play. But I think that’s a kind of arbitrary line. At some point, even the way you wear your uniform is often a signal of your culture and whether or not you want to conform or stand out. Look at the Fab Five choosing to wear baggy shorts, for instance.

    I don’t know if we can say, “We’ll accept one as being worthy of judgement while we won’t accept another because there’s a line.” Like I say, it seems arbitrary.

    2. I do think an “all or nothing” approach is also flawed. We have a tendency to think that way in our digital age — something should be entirely the case or not the case at all. It leaves little room for exceptions, though, and again, the line seems arbitrary.

    You can then start to get into the team name debate about if the messaging behind team names and colors are also a statement of virtue. Should we just have all teams wear the same uniform and colors and have no nicknames or culture so that there’s no difference in statements altogether?

    I sometimes remind folks that all or nothing tends to be a poor solution. I instead like to tell folks it’s also still possible to have an analog dial — one where you don’t have to turn it all the way off or all the way on, but one where you can turn it more in one direction or another.

    While I don’t think sports should rid itself of such messaging, I do think the volume has been turned, or “ratcheted” in Uniwatch parlance, too high, without making a statement on any particular message.

    However, I’ve said this: I’m kind of hoping the COVID-19 situation can be somewhat of a palette-cleanser for our society when all is said and done. I think people want to get back to normalcy. I think there’s a want for calm, peace and to just have things be boring for a while after all we’ve been through. And, honestly, I think that can apply to the uni-verse as well. If there’s ever a time to ratchet down, after an event like this strikes me as that time.

    Of course, that’s my opinion based on my virtues, though, of which, the sanctity of the uniform is something I see *as* a virtue. I do not own a professional sports team, and I get the sense many owners measure virtue by the size of their wealth. Hopeful? Yes. Optimistic? No.

    3. One last point: I sometimes tire of folks who find ways to dance around what they really want to say. I feel like “stick to sports” is one of the best examples of someone who is simply trying to avoid saying “I really don’t like that message.”

    I sometimes think that’s something we need to remind folks: If you feel uncomfortable directly calling out the message, then there’s probably a problem with your stance. America seems to have developed a whole lot of ways to do racist things while making them look “not racist.” It’s an extension of dog-whistling and one that seems a bit more nefarious. That’s a big part of our problem.

    Granted, this doesn’t mean you can’t have subtle stances. But again, keep the analog dial in mind. For instance, I agree the military and police are, for the most part, honorable and deserving of honor for their sacrifices — to a point. That doesn’t mean they’re beyond reproach or worthy of unending, infinite praise. It’s a dial, not a switch.

    Ultimately, these are conversations with subtleties that require more depth than, say, a tweet can accommodate, especially when you get into cultural and experiential differences. And, unfortunately, a lot of people just don’t want to think that deeply, plus, they “sense” consequences for taking unpopular or, in some cases, disproven stances. So they take an easy, often already-beaten, path. That’s not how we solve anything, though.

    So yeah. If there’s ever a time to do some navel-gazing with regards to the “why” of one’s stances and what one’s saying, including separating one’s self from others and introspectively internalizing why one feels a certain way about some things on one’s own rather than just to fit in with one’s tribe, I think this is a good time to do that.

    And, if anything, I’d encourage folks to be more direct with their thinking. Listen to the message. If you don’t like it, be direct in why you’re saying you don’t rather than asking the message to be shut off or hopping over to something tangential.

    I can’t say that I’ve often agreed with Dan Pfeifer in my two decades of knowing him, but here I very much do.

    1) Not much to agree or disagree with.
    2) 100 percent… all or nothing is flawed. Very rarely are situations all or nothing, there is a nuance.
    3) Couldn’t agree with that more. “Stick to sports” often is akin to “I’m comfortable in my status quo).

    “It’s a dial, not a switch.” Yes, yes and yes. I think people forget this.

    As mentioned in a few other comment threads: Yes, of course all/nothing is a false choice. That’s why I called it a thought experiment. My intent was the make people grapple with the idea of uniform virtue signaling itself, rather than the specific content of any particular examples of it.

    Oh, I knew what you were doing, Paul, and I don’t have a problem with it. I was speaking more generally in that situations are nuanced and not easy to binarily put into off/on, yes/no. For here, the concept of all or none as a thought experiment is fine. Frankly, I’m for the all, but I’d rather see it on the individual level than the team/corporate level, even at risk of muddying up a “uniform.”

    I appreciate the thoughtful in depth look at the “virtual signaling” issue when viewed through the prism of sports. If I had to choose, I would also say none at all.

    On the other hand, if there is a patch/sticker/uniform tribute to be worn, make it as rare as possible. A US flag on July 4. Veterans memorial poppy on 11/11. A MLK tribute on the national holiday. A heart felt Jackie Robinson tribute instead of needlessly having all players wear 42. And keep the national anthem to championship games only.

    When you wear a “virtual signaling” addition to your uniform every game you play, it gets forgotten and lost in the noise.

    “Third, even if the mind-reading attempt happens to be accurate — in other words, even if the person espousing the viewpoint in question really is insincere — that’s not particularly relevant because, as I never tire of pointing out, the message is what matters, not the messenger. Just because someone is insincere doesn’t mean they’re wrong.”

    I don’t think I agree with that. I think hypocrisy is always relevant. If (this is a local example where I live) a politician has a well documented history of picking fights with doctors and nurses and generally attacking health care, its entirely relevant when they show up banging pots and pans and wearing a “front line workers matter” shirt.

    If Donald Sterling or Marge Schott were still around, and they put an anti-racism message on their teams uniforms, I think the messenger is entirely relevant.

    I think its always relevant to call out hypocrisy and insincerity. Even where the message is positive.

    In the case of the politician, it matters because they’re not just citizens expressing free speech, they’re policymakers. If what you do as a policymaker contradicts what you say as a self-promoter, that’s an issue.

    But then, Sterling and Schott, as members of the owner class, also had power over others. They ruled their own little fiefdoms, as do all of the other members of their class with whom they shared a culture and norms.

    Messengers vary in their power to back up their words.

    Great post Paul! I’m honored that I received a mention in a lead post, thank you. I was truly surprised and shocked.

    In a perfect world, teams and athletes would stick to sports, I truly believe that. Sports is an “escape” and it would be great if it could stay pure. Unfortunately this is not a perfect world, and if sports wanted to stay pure they would have never established racial restrictions throughout its history (just an example). It would be great if at least the uniforms could stay pure,but that’s not happening.

    Its funny that my comments here tend to stick strictly to uniforms or sports only, I try to not get involved in discussions re: politics, or racial issues. My comments mentioned in the post by Paul is one of the very few times I’ve strayed from my “rule” of uniforms only on this site. But the initial comment by Chris caught my attention, as are some of the comments from today. I think the main issue is that unless you’re part of a minority, a woman, or some other disenfranchised group, you will never understand how much any little acknowledgement matters. I totally respect it, I really do, and I appreciate the Paul acknowledged as much. But just remember that just you how you will never ever understand or feel our plight/struggle, WE will never understand a life without it.

    Your comments, regardless of the topic, are always thoughtful and articulate. You help to make Uni Watch a better place! It was a pleasure to be able to quote you.

    I’m largely cool with any and all community-engagement stuff that sports want to do, in-game or off the field. Honoring military, folks battling cancer, or first responders is all fine, and having themed nights celebrating whatever group you like, sure, knock yourself out.

    I do wish that the uniforms were largely left alone. There used to be a timelessness to sports uniforms, especially the good ones. You could go back and watch highlights or games or classic moments and the jerseys would look similar to what they do now, even if the style of play, the stadium or whatever else might be different. Now, almost every game includes at least one team wearing some modified jersey, whether it be alternate or ‘virtue signaling’ or something else. Teams change their overall look constantly. Ads on jerseys are obviously anathema to what I like about them.

    Obviously my complaint is more macro, about the uni-verse in general, than micro as it relates to the topic that inspired your essay. But I wanted to express my general agreement with your thesis.

    What an absolutely absorbing, thought-provoking, brilliantly written piece. And the civil exchange of ideas in the Comment section is inspiring and reassuring as to our collective capacity to engage in this manner. Thanks, Paul, for convening this community and for penning today’s lede.

    Looks like the NBA realizes that the precipitous drop in its ratings necessitates a complete review of it’s virtue signaling this year, and will be removing it from the courts for the next season.

    From an ESPN Interview with Adam Silver by Rachel Nichols


    Actually, Tim, there are link that may have contributed to the drop in ratings across the sports world, and we have no idea about the extent to which virtue signaling may be among them. Please don’t make unsubstantiated assertions just because they happen to fit your worldview. Thanks.

    That said, I wasn’t aware of that interview with Silver, and it’s definitely relevant to today’s topic — thank you! I’ll add it to the bullet point where I wondered whether this would be a one-year thing or a ratchet thing.

    Not my world view. There’s a Harris poll which looks exactly at declining viewership in the NBA and the variety of reasons for the drop. Main reason is the NBA has become “too political”. However, I agree, there’s not a 1:1 relationship here at all.


    That Harris poll link does make some interesting points. Including this one, which works against your argument:

    NBA ratings are in fact down overall through the first round of the playoffs compared with last year, but it’s hardly an apples-to-apples comparison. Summer TV viewership typically lags springtime watching, when the playoffs are normally aired. This year, the overall numbers are skewed by the need to air games during the day to accommodate a playoff calendar that has been condensed because of the pandemic. Ratings are up over last year’s playoffs for the games that have aired in prime time.

    Thanks, Tim. I hadn’t seen that poll. But as you yourself have now said, the poll isn’t nearly as conclusive as your initial comment suggested.

    Carry on!

    As a professional political scientist (fancy right!) I find the argument “keep politics out of sports” humorous. There is going to be politics in sports. It’s just a matter if you like the status quo politics or want to change the status quo. Those in the former camp couch their argument in the “keep politics out of sports” vein. And once the status quo does change, the positions eventually change as well. If the NBA were to leave the social justice messages on the backs of their jersies, the “keep politics out of it” crowd would pile on the odd player who wants a MAGA message. Far more interesting than the political/non-political arguments are the debates around what are the “good” or “appropriate” politics for an organization to have. I remember when Tim Tebow put scriptures on his eye black (a very political statement). I’d go to the games and see lots of people with the same eye black in the stands and it felt like a weird message to be displaying at a public university that, if a fan were not a Christian, could feel exclusionary. I sent the Athletics Dept. a note asking that the player be asked to keep the scripture off the uniform elements not to keep politics out of it, but because I didn’t think it was the political message a public university should be giving off. I was promptly ignored.

    It’s funny that we modern Americans casually excoriate Europeans because their great-grandfathers didn’t do more to stop the rise of fascism. There was a big controversy in the US about sending a team to the Hitler Olympics at all. And it will always be tainted by suspicion that Avery Brundage & Co. didn’t just want the Olympics to be above politics, but that they actively approved of anti-Semitism, as so many in authority back then did.

    If Europe’s soccer clubs had done as much then to oppose fascism as they visibly do now, would it have moved the needle? It’s hard to think of anything that Hakoah Vienna, one of the most famous teams of the ’30s, could have done to stop Hitler’s steamroller and its own termination. On the other hand, humans in general have become so much more worshipful of sports that Hakoah’s dismantling itself would seem more shocking now, as if Trump had moved to ban the NBA for its “treasonous identity politics.” Maybe once people start openly calling for a dictatorship and a mass roundup of their enemies, no messaging can matter; factionalism becomes every waking moment.

    That is a very interesting question. I don’t know enough about the various Oberligen in Germany at the time to speculate on whether they would have been able to make any difference.

    We do know that Mussolini link. A force for evil also has the potential to be used as a force for good, one assumes.

    Paul –

    GREAT piece today, really great. One of your all-time best!

    I’m fine with any tribute and would also like to say that I know quite a bit of younger people (work at a University). We talk about sports and “virtue signaling” never comes up. Never. It’s always old, white men that are the ones complaining (in general, not talking about uniforms).

    I was going to add more. I wrote, re-wrote, edited, deleted so much in this comment but then I realized I’m just tired. A lot of this is just thinly veiled racism and hate to me. Sort of the All Lives Matter kind of stuff.

    But I will say the one thing I am most tired of, by far, is everyone repeating how they are going to boycott a team or sport because someone took a knee for a song or whatever. Great, boycott it. Now go away and do something else.

    Or, as Jay said above in a much better way:

    “That, my friends, is not “virtue signaling”. It’s called “caring”.

    If you’re so offended by leagues showing that they care about issues that directly and consistently effect their players and fans, then yeah, you should absolutely go watch something else.”

    one thing I am most tired of, by far, is everyone repeating how they are going to boycott a team or sport because someone took a knee for a song or whatever. Great, boycott it. Now go away and do something else.

    Well, to be fair, boycott is a form of public protest in an attempt to create change, so it makes sense that they’d publicly state their intent and urge others to do likewise — that’s the whole point. Nothing wrong with that. (Whether any of these people really *are* boycotting sports like they claim is another issue.)

    Thanks for the kind words!

    Yeah, I meant to say I’m guessing a lot of them aren’t really boycotting but forgot to add that. Too many edits and my brain and fingers aren’t working well today.

    Anyway, some great comments for the most part from others as well today. Glad it has been civil and thought provoking.

    The Founding Fathers discussed among themselves creating a “civic religion” to indoctrinate the inhabitants (many of whom weren’t citizens) to obey the government. Religions are all about repetition of symbols as a moral requirement. Putting those privileged concepts above politics and our right to amend them.

    Of course, the country surviving at all meant that it accumulated aspects of a civic religion – including sports! What more perfect battleground – or scoreboard – for the tenets of the civic religion than a sports uniform? And when the corporations that own and sponsor teams lobby relentlessly to be placed above the law, thus into the religious pantheon, they go from a barrier to a freeway for whatever “above politics” messages their mind-control experts advise them to embrace. When they caved in to the flag patches, they had to cave in to other demands or be seen to take a side in America’s factional wars (in which each side must claim to represent “all Americans”).

    Major revisions in the civic religion are cause for civil wars. Now must be the time.

    New York City FC has been engaging in discussion with fans around its own signaling. Since the club’s first season in 2015, the players have taken the field by walking through the link, a line of firefighters on one side and police on the other.

    Looking towards the time when fans eventually return to the stadium, NYCFC is apparently considering replacing them with essential workers, recognizing a more expansive definition of the word “hero”.

    Typo alert. The OKC bombing was in 1995, not 94.

    Great thought provoking article today.I was all set to comment my feelings,but I’m feeling a bit different now after considering things from other points of view. Honestly,the majority of virtue signaling doesn’t affect me one way or another. If other people think it will help them then have at it. Like with the anthem,there’s not a situation where I would not stand. It’s not up for negotiation. Other people feel differently and that’s what’s so great about our country. It’s not illegal to disagree. It’s not even a law you have to stand. When Jerry said he expected all the Cowboys to stand, my first though was right on. But I don’t want to have it forced. That’s not what America is about. That’s North Korea man. That’s not to say I like it, but I like a man’s right to choose more and I would vigorously defend that right. I’m trying to be open minded and consider others views too.

    So part of me thinks it would be easier to have none of it. But one of my favorite speeches is JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon speech” It was given at Rice university and has a sports tie in when he asks “Why does Rice play Texas?”

    “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

    What I’m trying to say is the easy way is what we’ve always done. And here we are. We should always strive to be better.

    Thanks for the thought provoking today Paul. Sorry for such a long rambling comment.

    This is a really thoughtful piece, and something I’ve thought about a fair amount. There’s a lot of nuance, and I appreciate the care with which Paul addressed the topic in his piece, and also how thoughtful everyone has engaged in the conversation.

    From my perspective, there are a couple of major determining factor for my support of this kind of messaging on uniforms:

    –Are the leagues/teams redesigning the uniform elements, or are they leaving the standard uniforms the same and adding a patch or message of some kind? In other words, adding a pink ribbon to a uniform to support breast cancer awareness is far more preferable to all MLB teams wearing pink hats and changing the color of the wordmarks on their jerseys to pink on Mother’s Day. I have no problem with adding something to a uniform to show support, but I do have a problem with altering a team’s standard uniform elements.

    –Are the leagues and teams profiting off the sale of the merchandise? MLB and NFL teams stand to make money from the sale of camouflage hats and sideline/dugout gear, so it seems pretty obvious to me that the leagues is using certain holidays/times of year to profit off the sale of this gear, despite attempts made to appear altruistic.

    In other words, I do think how these messages are delivered is important. Adding to a jersey or a hat is different and more preferable to me than changing established jersey elements, and it’s all the better when teams aren’t trying to profit off of it.

    Thanks, Paul, for the comprehensive examination here. We know what’s said about opinions and everybody having one. But it’s a helluva lot more productive when a person has a considered opinion. This helps a great deal.

    I haven’t had the chance to read through the resulting comments yet but I will. I’m curious to learn about how people here think. Given the way this is presented I can be a lot more certain I’ll be reading a meaningful exchange of ideas.

    Ultimately I think I land on the side of preferring a message-free experience as I watch the games. And I’m one who strongly supports individuals expressing what’s meaningful to them. (With teams and leagues it becomes more murky for me.) But all of the subtext offered is valuable in reminding all of us that things rarely come with clear-cut, black-or-white answers.

    Context that might help explain my opinion is that I stubbornly hold onto my wish for the seemingly impossible: a pristine uni-verse. No league logos, and limited and legitimate historic patches, such as major anniversaries and respectful honoring of team legends when called for. No wall advertising and no marketing logos superimposed on the back of the pitcher’s mound. And, good god, no maker’s marks on the uniforms. I know I’m chasing a uni-corn but it’s just the way I’m wired.

    (Side note: Many years ago my then girlfriend/now wife bought me a Mets cap when she had an internship in New York. Pre-internet and pre-cap store in the mall, they weren’t as readily available. And this was before MLB slapped its logo on the back. I’m a pretty passionate fan but I’ve never done a ton of merch, so this relic is a treasure to me now.)

    Anyway, thanks again. The best case that comes with any such social messaging, if that term fits, is that it causes people who see it to look inward first and really grasp where they stand on the issue being raised. You’ve helped that along today.

    I would prefer no “virtue signaling” whatsoever but realize that the toothpaste is out of the tube on this issue. I guess I would amend it to things that aren’t political in nature or perceived as political in nature.

    I guess I am OK with Mother’s & Father’s Day in baseball, or Cancer or Mental Health Awareness. I mean who could argue against Mother’s or Fathers or mental or physical diseases? (I am sure there’s people out there that could, there’s always “that person” I guess).

    Sadly, military, first responders, American Nationalism holidays all fall under the “political” spectrum in today’s day and age, so I would be fine with that going away.

    Not to say that I am against the things in the NBA this season or in the end zones in NFL games, but I feel like our society does have a lot of equality issues to work on, and as crazy as it may sound to call equality issues as “polarizing” I would just prefer all things done to honor folks are things that pretty much everyone agrees on-which I stated above.

    I do know one thing…each and every one of my fellow comm-UNI-ty members are all fine people by me.

    Personally, speaking in terms of baseball, I liked baseball better when players showed up to the yard, took their hacks, the game was over and they were gone. That’s not a “stick to sports” angle, it more comes from it being a simpler time. There was no promos, no giveaways, and in between innings the players warmed up and there was no hokey 3rd inning game being played by fans. Minor league teams played in dumps that were showing their age and were lucky if they had a home and road uniform. Major league teams played in the same stadium as their NFL city counterparts and in late September/October had to deal with the infield looking rather worn. There were no 3rd uniforms, much less uniform of the day. It’s not that I don’t like any messages, special uniforms, 3rd inning standing ovations for rando veteran in the stands or Pinktober. Some tributes come off hideous, but the thought behind them is just. I am 100% behind all tributes, even the ones that may belie my own political agenda. My biggest issues is, yes it has been watered down by overexposure. It was watered down 15 years ago. I would go as far as to say the tributes that happened for the remaining almost 2 months of the 2001 baseball season after September 11th watered it down. It reached a point that it was just a ritual, instead of honoring the people that died that tragic day. The 9/11 tributes became so rote, I think a lot of people forgot what there were doing and became numb. Rick Monday at Dodger Stadium means more to me, not only because as an American it makes me proud, but because it was unique, spur of the moment, and it frankly took guts to approach a couple of random yahoos and interrupt their protest. Mostly, it meant something to him. All this to say, I prefer sports the way it was, when it was a multi-million dollar enterprise instead of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. There was something still routed with the earth with the highest level of sports in those days. There was nothing like catching highlights at Candlestick Park of a homerun some one hit, and in the shot you could see the Chevy Van parked under the right field grandstand clearly in the camera shot. Now, you can’t have a car parked there at all, and if you did for some reason, it better have the correct corporate logos on it, ones we TV executives advertise and it has to be pointed the right way to give the advert that paid the most the clearest view. As much as I loathe the Yankees, that’s how it was done. Two colors to their uniform, no frills, clean haircuts, pins at home and block letters on the road. No names. Their stadium was a shrine, hallowed yet not over the top. It was very indicative of the way sports used to be played. Very raw and to the point.

    Unpopular opinion: From a purely aesthetic perspective, I’m not a big fan of “extras” on unis, whether it’s ad patches, memorial patches, patches advocating a cause, whatever. It just looks like clutter to me, and I feel like it messes up the artistic integrity of the uniform.

    I have thoughts about virtue signaling as well, but I doubt I’ll say anything that hasn’t already been said by this point, so I’ll stop here.

    link (11:28 mark)

    Apparently the orange pants that the browns wore week two weren’t a last minute addition to the uniform set. they were planned the whole time and they wanted to keep them a secret until they were debuted on the field

    I would say that at the end of the day, sports are nothing more than a form of entertainment, and if social messaging, whether one agrees or disagrees with the message, detracts from the entertainment, people are going to turn it off eventually.

    Late to the discussion, and perhaps a dollar short, having read all the nuanced and considered opinions posted. I think I come down on the side of “all” b/c of a bias against authority figures. The right to protest is absolute, and is as American as apple pie.

    True, but so much of the virtue signaling from the leagues comes down squarely on the side of authority.

    There’s a whole lot of pro-establishment messaging going on at games.

    Even though it would end up throwing out plenty of babies with the bathwater, I’d be fine with a resolutely apolitical aesthetic in which sports teams refused to take a collective stand on any hot-button issues, worthy or otherwise.

    This is–most crucially–because sports-team owners, front offices, and athletes are disproportionately witless sorts who can’t be trusted to speak intelligently on any issue that doesn’t pertain to their chosen sport (and often not even then). I dislike the presumption that anyone involved has the intellectual or moral standing to use his public megaphone for anything else.

    I dislike all examples of virtual signaling you mentioned on uniforms. Never have liked It and never will. Pretty solid piece overall Paul.

    “Virtue signaling” on uniform – I’m in for the choice of not at all.

    Keep it off all uniforms. If there is a cause the owners or players want to support – fine, and publicize it somewhere else besides on the sport uniform. Even better would be to do sometime else other than game day.

    Don’t get met started on the merch money grab, or how useless just awareness is after a while. Awareness by itself does little for the actual cause; owners, leagues, etc. if you want us to think you care at all for a cause put your money where you mouth is and have all the money go to the cause with a profit of zero on any cause related merchandise every time.

    I prefer none at all. Not because of the types of messages, but that there are messages beyond the team at all. I would prefer if teams had one home and one away uniform that they wore (or one primary and one clash if you prefer).

    I don’t buy the comparison between bands/songs becoming political and, say, a uniform having political messages either. I get the general idea behind what you’re saying, but a band is usually a group of individuals who are creating art that may be open up to interpretation and is generally meant to make you feel something. I don’t think that’s the general purpose of a uniform. That is, a uniform is meant to be .. uniform. The team wears all the same thing not as a statement beyond here are our colors/brand, but to be uniform in appearance and distinguish themselves from their opponent. In an NFL roster, you have 53 individuals who may or may not overlap very much in political, religious, or other beliefs. That’s much easier to achieve in a band of 3-5 people, especially when the main message and songwriting can be pushed by one person in that band with rotating members.

    I think too often now, I turn on the TV to a game and have no idea who is playing based on what I’m looking at. Or which player is doing something because their name plate is a term or phrase rather than their name. It sort of defeats the purpose of a uniform to me.

    Paul This is an outstanding and insightful piece of work. Thank you for writing it and please keep going. You are an amazing writer.

    I’m in the corner of “why can’t sports be sports”? I think all of the extra stuff is ridiculous. Military tributes (I’m retired USAF), Pinktober, camo unis, everything, is dumb. I don’t even think the National Anthem should be played at sporting events. All I want in life is to tune in for 3-4 hours and enjoy a game, get away from the craziness of work, the world, etc. Is that asking too much?

    “…the message is what matters, not the messenger.”

    If that were true, communications theorists like Marshall McLuhan would never have come up with theories that suggest: “The medium is the message.”

    You’ll want to rethink your original argument and constant correction of others on that point.

    The medium as a message has become divisive to some…and most assuredly a reason why some sports fans are fatigued. The NBA needs to keep a close eye on this.

    Actually, Scott, a mere slogan with metaphorical implications is not a refutation of my position. I’d be happy to discuss this further in another forum.

    (Also: That slogan did come from “communications theorists like Marshall McLuhan.” It came simply from Marshall McLuhan — one person. Stacking the deck with the illusion of a chorus, when in fact you’re citing one voice, is a bad-faith tactic. Please avoid that. Thanks.)

    A mere slogan? It’s a phrase summarizing his study of the effects of mass media on thought and human behavior.

    Hundreds (thousands?) of media professors/authors still teach his theory today. Imagine the many studies, articles and discussions of branches of this particular theory.

    This doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It means your original point (the message is what matters) isn’t always right.

    The form of a message can, and does, determine the ways in which that message is perceived. (Not always.)

    Also, that the form of communication can be important. Sometimes moreso than the content, itself.

    There appears to be a sizable audience that isn’t keen to what the NBA is communicating — through (rich) black males whose uniforms convey ‘BLM’ slogans.

    Is it the slogans that are turning them off? Or, is it that black athletes are voicing it? Or, is it RICH black athletes voicing it? Or, is it that an individual rich black athlete is voicing it vs. being a part of a larger community (team)?

    One more…
    An overnight tweetstorm from the president. Are the topics most important? Or is it the act? Or is it the medium giving access to this barrage at any hour?

    There’s no wrong answer.

    This is a straw man argument. I have never once said that the form of the message doesn’t matter. What I have consistently said is that indicting the messenger (for hypocrisy, e.g.) is weak substitute for — and often a bad-faith way of avoiding — engaging with the message. That’s all.

    This is a silly distraction from the larger issue of today’s post. Let’s please move on. Thanks.

    One last opinion, reading some comments that are anti-virtue signaling got me thinking why I fell in love with uniforms in the first place. Some uniforms are so beautiful and timeless that they need to be left alone, not from a visual standpoint, but because of why we tune in. I, like most, watch my teams to get away from life, and in that, not only is the game on at a certain time, but the way the teams look is just as calculated as game time. What I mean is, we need sports to be consistent. Consistent time, consistent look and consistent feel. It’s like any given team’s identity is something that won’t let you down (unless you are a fan of a team with a bad look (Falcons)). I need that in sports. Like Bart Giamatti said, “I am not that grown up or up to date, I am a simpler creature” and talking how baseball “gave the illusion that there was something abiding.” Some things need to not change, uniforms are one, because without that consistent feel, I lose interest.

    Excellent piece as always, Paul. I’m in the “keep it pure” category. I never was a fan of the message on the jersey/sweater/guernsey, except for memorials. I am certainly not a fan of virtue signalling” on uniforms, keep them pure and keep them platform free- with the exception of honoring those who have passed. I’m with Dave Z., I just want my 4 hours of escape.

    Just because this is a great post, and its so nice to see thoughtful comments from across so many viewpoints, I’ll toss my tardy $.02 on the pile.

    I love sports uniforms and equipment and have since as long as I can remember. In a perfect world, they would be artistically inspired, aesthetically pleasing, and evocative of the team/sport/players competitive spirit.
    And probably devoid of ancillary messaging of any sort.

    We do not live in a perfect world, nor have sports evolved perfectly. Im glad to accept the gross and the crass to a certain extent if it helps draw attention to noble causes (equality of all citizens under the law, appreciation of public service) in a meaningful way, and gives a voice to the participants-players especially, but coaches and staff too.

    Its easy to feel fatigued, I get that.
    Part of that is the 6 other corporate messages that also appear on the floor/jersey of the NBA for instance-maker’s mark, ads etc.
    Part of it is that the conversation is evolving, and a fixed slogan cant keep up on some topics.
    The other part is I watch so many damn sports, so EPL/NFL/F1 all messaging the same thing become a cacophony.

    Thanks for a great article Paul, and to everyone that commented.

    A great piece, and I think I’m mostly in agreement with you.

    I do think there’s something nice about the Ozzie Virgil references in that they’re NOT uniform – it’s individuals making a decision and using their uniform as a canvas. When the uniform stays uniform, it makes a bigger statement when there’s a small deviation.

    The NBA statements of course went the other way, to the point of being almost too uniform. I’m in agreement with the sentiments expressed on those jerseys, but what was really said by the 78th player who picked one of the common statements on the back? Contrast that with a situation where a player writes BLM on their jersey – feels different, right? And I think the latter is more impactful.

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