Americans cherish tradition and Thanksgiving Day is a holiday drowning in culture and cranberry sauce. More important than the dinner table abundant with complex carbs stuffing humans fuller than the balloons hovering over Herald Square are the customs that accompany the Autumn holiday.
NFL football, specifically the teams in Detroit and Dallas, are as much a part of the ritual of Thanksgiving as yanking the turkey wishbone apart for good luck or dislodging the smaller piece from your drunk uncle’s gullet after he swallows it during an ill-advised “magic trick for the kids.” But there’s another piece of NFL history associated with the yearly matchup between the Lions and Cowboys.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1994, the Lions unveiled throwback uniforms similar to those worn during their 1935 championship season – a “Honolulu blue” jersey with cloudy silver helmets to match equally drab pants and solid blue socks and black cleats finished off the ensemble. The helmets were even without the Lions logo, the poor guy probably ran off in embarrassment. During that Lions mid-30s championship run, the country was six years deep into the Great Depression. The feeling of the nation was reflected in the Lions’ dismal duds. The unis even managed to dull the moves of the league’s most electrifying player, Barry Sanders.
The NFL was following the lead of Major League Baseball who cashed in on nostalgia earlier in the decade. MLB was the first pro sports league to unveil a throwback model during a regular season game but the experiment went beyond just the uniforms and celebrated the modest beginnings of America’s Pastime.
To commemorate the final season at Comiskey Park, the Chicago White Sox wore throwbacks celebrating the 1917 World Series team back in 1990. In a game against the Milwaukee Brewers, the scoreboard and public address system were turned off, and the lineups announced with a hand-held megaphone. After that game, retro became all the rage.
By 2001, the league had evolved into a money-printing machine, and the NFL requested all four teams playing on Thanksgiving dress in throwback fatigues. The uniform change was so popular that the following season saw every NFL team wear throwbacks on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. The popularity of the logo rewinds even prompted some franchises – specifically the Jets and Giants – to modify the current logos and jerseys to reflect the logos of years gone by.
In 2013, with more and more NFL players being diagnosed with CTE and head trauma suffered during their playing days, the league took steps to protect the players (and themselves). A new rule was imposed before the season requiring players to wear the same helmet for every game of the season. Two of the league’s top advisory panels – the Head, Neck and Spine Committee and the Player Safety Advisory Panel – recommended players stick with one helmet under the belief that new helmets can be unsafe if worn without a significant break-in period.
This new helmet rule prohibited the use of new helmets during the season, eliminating many of the historically accurate but infrequently used head protection. Teams are still allowed to use alternate decals – or even eliminate decals completely if historically accurate – for their throwbacks but have to modify the player’s regular season helmet.
The rule change effectively eliminated some of the most popular and memorable throwbacks for several franchises.
“Some teams can simply remove or swap out a team logo while retaining the same shell color of the helmet,” explains Paul Lukas, creator of the popular website Uni Watch, the sports world’s foremost column devoted to uniform design. “Unfortunately, the rule change meant a team like the Buccaneers can no longer wear their creamsicle throwbacks and the Patriots can no longer wear the Pat Patriot helmets and jerseys.”
You shall be missed, Bucco Bruce.
The throwback doesn’t feel as important anymore. The constant unleashing of specialty uniforms killed the spectacle and fun of the occasional throwback jersey, especially the usually abysmal Color Rush uniforms. One positive to players looking like Power Rangers on game day is that all revenue generated from the sale of Color Rush jerseys goes directly to the NFL Foundation, a nonprofit organization to fund health, safety and wellness programs for youth.
With ratings still on the decline, the league is looking into several ways to win back the fans. Fewer commercial breaks, a shorter halftime and a more streamlined review system are just some of the changes being considered to get fans back in front of the TV. The only place the league isn’t losing money is on jersey sales. According to Darren Rovell of ESPN, “despite declining TV ratings, NFL merchandise sold by Fanatics, which runs the official NFL Shop, is up 20 percent year to date versus last year, and October sales were up 22 percent over October 2015.” This revenue stream means only one thing – a rampant return of throwback gear and waxing nostalgic about the glory days. The Dolphins, Bears, Bills, Steelers and Packers are just some of the franchises that have donned different era jerseys this season.
But even as the results of the November election may have set the country back 50 years, living in the past isn’t as much fun for certain fanbases. Especially those teams without a trophy case full of championship hardware. Are Browns fans supposed to look back fondly at the time when they didn’t suck as much or raise a tailgate beer to the years the team wasn’t so bad because Cleveland didn’t even have a franchise?
Forgotten in all this might be the reaction of the players and their treatment as a walking billboard for team gear. This past July, White Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale was scratched from his start less than 30 minutes before first pitch. A statement released by the team said the incident was “non-physical in nature and being investigated.” Multiple reports said Sale took issue with the 1976 throwback uniforms the Sox were supposed to wear that day and expressed his disdain by taking a knife to all of them during batting practice.
The team took the field in their 1983 throwbacks instead.
The 2013 helmet rule change prompted the Cowboys to stop wearing throwbacks on Thanksgiving. The Lions retired their throwbacks a few seasons earlier. This Thanksgiving, the Lions will wear their regular season attire. The Cowboys, and the Steelers in the night game, will sport the Color Rush versions of their uniform (meaning no more bumble bees buzzing around the field). For some fans, the uniforms might be the only interesting thing of note when Pittsburgh takes on the Colts in front of a country tripping on tryptophan.
“Fans always care what the players wear,” admits Lukas, “That doesn’t mean they always love throwback designs –sometimes they hate them. But they do care.”