Air Jordans, Hockey and Hardcore: How Punk Embraced Sports

The story behind how a bunch of straight edge kids started dressing like jocks as a middle finger to punk fashion

Ray Cappo of Youth of Today rocking Nikes that would probably sell for a lot of money today. Credit: Jordan Cooper of Revelation Records

Despite sharing similar communal behavior, punks and jocks have, historically, always shown hostility towards one another. It's hard to find more fundamentality opposing social groups: liking sports can be considered a mainstream hobby, liking punk rock is an alternative practice. Both possess a particular language, jargon and dress, typically on opposite ends of the spectrum. They're not meant to intersect, until they do.

In 1982, a few years before a certain subsect of suburban East Coast punks would declare themselves "youth crew," a subculture of hardcore punk defined by its moralistic outlook and positive message, Reno, Nevada hardcore band 7 Seconds released a 7" titled Skins, Brains, & Guts. On it was the 40-second song "I Hate Sports," frontman Kevin Seconds scream-singing:

"I hate watching football games / Baseball is so fucking lame
T.V. Sports they all suck shit / Howard Cosell is a wimp
I hate sports / I hate sports
I hate sports / I hate sports
I hate watching baseball games / Boxing is so fucking lame
Ali and his old aged fame / Yeah he's washed up
He's fucking tame"

The cover image was of Jimmy "Dim Menace" Borghino, the original singer of 7 Seconds, scowling with the word "society" etched on his raised fist. Most defining are the faded smudges of black grease a football or baseball player might apply to keep the sun out of their eyes. For a band that wrote songs about hating sports, they certainly appeared otherwise.

Nearly 35 years ago, punks and sports just didn't mix. But in 2016, a football letterman jacket mixed up with a Screaming Females shirt and a pair of Chuck Taylors, a teen skating in old Sk8-Hi Vans and an Oakland Raiders t-shirt, a guy walking around the indie music fest in a vintage Hakeem Olajuwon jersey or even the famous "Yankees Suck" t-shirt worn by Boston Red Sox fans, in some way, can trace back to that single EP. 

And it really started as a middle finger to punk's uniform look of the time. In Steven Blush's seminal American Hardcore: A Tribal History, Kevin Seconds refers to the athletic look as a particular kind of anti-punk fashion, "I didn't buy into the whole thing of walking around like peacocks, with big blue-green Mohawks," he explains, "The kids I knew that were into that gave me shit because I’d always just go for a shaved-head look. They'd say, 'Aren't you proud to be punk?'"

Two years after Skins, Brains & Guts, 7 Seconds released their debut album 1984's The Crew. The record became formative for a young band from Connecticut called Youth of Today, as well as Crippled Youth, whose 1986 debut EP Join the Fight has a cover image of a bloodied Maurice (Rocket) Richard shaking hands with (Sugar) Jim Henry of the Boston Bruins after what looked like a brutal hockey game, and who would go on to be the iconic New York Hardcore band Bold. Like Minor Threat before them – and unlike the drug-addled, booze-heavy scene of nearby Manhattan punk – the bands abided by a straight edge lifestyle, the kind that would define the youth crew movement, a strict doctrine of no drugs and no booze partnered with a heavily vegetarian diet. Youth of Today frontman Ray Cappo reflects, "We were into clean living as we got into punk. That was our type of rebellion. When I started hanging out with regular punks in the Lower East Side of New York I realized the drug scene in the punk scene was exponentially worse than my high school. We were into clean living ethics and that was reflected in the way we dressed. We almost felt proud of it."

Cappo's referring to the youth crew uniform of sporty clothing, a sort of band brand he curated in opposition to the meat-eating, beer-guzzling bro-punks around him. He continues, "It was like 'You guys are wearing 18-hole Dr. Marten's? It's summer out. Are you kidding? Put on a pair of skate shorts.' None of that stuff seems weird because it's all mainstream now, but to wear a hooded sweatshirt and sneakers was a little laugh in the face of punk culture. In retrospect, we were smartasses. If we saw someone overdressed with dyed black hair, a leather jacket and engineer boots we'd be like, 'Is that a witch? Or a warlock?' We liked that type of music, but why put on a costume? It seemed partially pretentious. We were into it, but we felt we grew out of that stage of dress up."

Rebelling against textbook punk attire, Cappo and crew almost accidentally created a new punk aesthetic, one predicated on athletic wear – the basketball sneakers and shorts he mentions. For the youth crew look, it all boils down to the cover of the 1986 Youth of Today album Break Down the Walls. On it, Cappo is shirtless, sweaty, wearing track pants and Air Jordans. "He looked cool as hell on the cover," Sean O'Donnell, founder of youth crew label Youngblood Records recalls, "He looked like a monster. He came off larger than life. The cool thing about youth crew is that it pulled from an athletic aesthetic but youth crew kids are more nerds than they are jocks. It's kind of a mutation." O'Donnell's label is named after the 1986 cult classic hockey movie Youngblood, and the its logo is a cartoonish illustration of Philadelphia Flyers legend Eric Lindros clutching the Stanley Cup (something he never got to do in his career). His jersey number of 88 is visible and doubles as a nod to the year 1988, one largely considered the peak of New York straight edge youth crew hardcore. The irony here is that O'Donnell doesn't fancy himself a sports fan, but loves the imagery. He's not alone in that as the look caught on with the next generation of hardcore kids, Youth of Today leading the march. Today, it's also not hard to see traces of the look being mimicked by streetwear brands like Supreme and even the hockey apparel company Violent Gentlemen's design and overall aesthetic. 

"I remember getting Youth of Today's Break Down the Walls record and just looking at it and being like 'Holy shit, I can't believe that these guys are a hardcore punk band.' They looked like normal guys that would've gone to my high school, wearing Nike running pants and Air Jordans and shirts. They're clean-cut, shaved heads," Tim McMahon, vocalist of New Jersey straight edge band Mouthpiece explains. O'Donnell largely refers to McMahon's band as one of the first to inspire a youth crew revival in the early '90s, an era of hardcore bred from Youth of Today's foundation. "To me, as much as I liked the music, it didn't feel natural to me to want to dress like a punk. I had no yearning to wear combat boots or ripped up jeans or shirts with offensive slogans on them that said ‘Nazi punks fuck off’ or whatever. I had nothing against it; it just wasn't something I wanted to do. When I saw these guys dressed normal I thought, ‘I can relate to that.' It was just shorts, skate shirts and sneakers. In 1986, 1987 a lot of skateboarders were wearing Air Jordans. [Bones] Brigade skaters were wearing them so it felt natural that hardcore guys would start, too. I was attracted to it."

"You're not going to believe this," Cappo says, thinking about the album cover. "I bought those particular Air Jordans at Marshall's. They were cheap, they were athletic and they were non-leather. I was not that big of a sports fan where I even knew who Michael Jordan was, really. I just thought they were cool sneakers. Since then, and I'm not going to take credit for Michael Jordan's popularity, or Michael Jordan’s sneakers popularity, but since then Air Jordans have become a collectable sneaker in that music genre. There was no plan on wearing those. The whole outfit I had on that day was from Marshalls and the nylon running pants I got at Salvation Army. That was the look."

Cappo retains that it was exclusively a style, not a love of organized sports. He's still very much into health and consciousness, studying as a celibate monk at a Krishna Bhakti Ashram, in 1991 given the name Raghunath in Vrindavan, India (Raghunath is the name he goes by now.) Still, his flirtation with sports iconography informed the Youth Crew movement, perhaps peaking in a band like the football-themed Ten Yard Fight from Boston.

"It started as a joke in a lot of ways," Ten Yard Fight guitarist John LaCroix considers his band's origin story. "We thought the best bands didn’t take themselves too seriously, at the same time we really loved the bands that took themselves seriously like Youth of Today. In Boston there's a band called Slapshot, the local heroes of the generation before us. They were straight edge and had all this hockey stuff around them. We riffed off that. There was a video game we used to play on Nintendo called Ten Yard Fight. We later found out all this stuff – Ten Yard Fight was the Harvard team's old fight song. But really it was more tied to the video game than anything."

Like Youth of Today and Mouthpiece, LaCroix and Ten Yard Fight didn't originally fancy themselves sports fanatics, but a love of that particular look remained pervasive. "We really liked our Nikes. When you go to a hardcore show, it's really physical. We started to wear all the athletic gear because it was just more comfortable to play. At the same time, we had a blueprint of the style that came before us. Youth of Today dressed like that years before us. [Ray Cappo] was athletic, he wore like the track pants, pulled them up halfway with a pair of Nikes. Our scene was a little cleaner cut than the punk scene."

Ten Yard Fight's first show has since become the stuff of hardcore legend because of their costuming. The band played alongside decidedly not-youth crew groups like Cave In and Piebald, but decided to take their contact sports-theme to the next level: Frontman Anthony "Wrench" Moreschi wore football gear and "eye black, which came from 7 Seconds," LaCroix recalls, "We all wore Football jerseys because we had given ourselves numbers. We thought it was punk to be different, to be off-kilter. 7 Seconds have that song, "I hate sports." If it's punk for 7 Seconds to hate sports, it would be more punk to like sports…though all the time we would have people ask us football stats and we would crumble very quickly. Some of our later members were sports fans but the original members, we weren't. The real thought was not to attract jocks, or to turn off jocks. The concept was that as a kid, you have this purity. You see a ball flying and you think, 'That's cool, I want to throw that ball.' It's essentially youthful curiosity. The [sporty] lyrics sprung out of that, back in this time when I used to play flag football with my dad in the backyard, you know? There was a subtle honesty to it rooted in stuff you do as a kid, feelings you have as a kid. Playing, goofing around, not worrying about things so much."

In that regard, attraction to sports in punk feels natural, a reflection of the youthful energy inherent in the genre. It also establishes a certain accessibility to punk – everyone can share in these memories – a mentality inherent in sports fandom. It's not necessarily read that way.

"People have accused the youth crew look as being elitist, but to me, what made a person in cool in those circles was that they were sincere and nerdy about hardcore. I always thought it was little funny when people who were a little bit more traditionally punk would call youth crew kids 'jocks,' because in the real high school world they're not. They're straight edge, maybe vegetarian…none of these things feed into a real conservative jock mentality. Youth crew is taking that jock aesthetic and mutating it into this weird form of punk," O'Donnell defends. "Did it draw meatheads in? Possibly, but bands like Pennywise, Lagwagon, bro-punks draw in more meathead punks than youth crew ever did. You would have the people who would come into shows, not really getting it and being too aggressive. You hear stories about Marines coming into shows and thinking that moshing is about killing people and it's not necessarily that."

McMahon agrees. "There were definitely kids who got into hardcore who weren't into sports at all, then discovered bands that were pushing sports. When you're younger and you're into the alternative/underground thing going on, sports don't usually have a place there – it's too mainstream. Sports are not on your radar. You don't want to be a part of that because it's the norm. As you grow older, you mature and you realize sports aren’t the devil. You might catch a game and realize 'Oh, that's entertaining.'"

But things change. 

"When I was younger I thought, 'I hate that whole jock mentality.'" He pauses for a second. "What is the jock mentality? It's a cliché. Everyone who's a jock doesn't think the same way. Everyone who's into straight edge hardcore doesn't think the same way. I had no interest in sports, then I got into it a little and now I'm fully in."