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Why More Athletes are Protesting With Uniforms

WNBA and Chris Sale made what they wear to play their sports the big news over the weekend

WNBA, Fines, Basketball, Minnesota Lynx, Basketball, Team

Mark Lennihan/AP

Welcome to the dog days of summer, where we sweat it out hoping some heroes and villains will emerge from the sports world just to help us not think about the sun beating down on us. Usually it’s really just baseball to tide us over, but with the Olympics coming up, there’s some hope that August might be somewhat tolerable – despite the Zika fears and doping Russians.

This past weekend saw two unique stories from two different sports, both involving uniforms. They both reminded us that what our athletes wear when they play means so much more than we tend to think. Beyond the stats and wins or losses, uniforms can be statements. One was a very real, very important reminder, while the other was…definitely something. 

The WNBA, as it winds down play for its break during the Olympics, made the biggest news as league president Lisa Borders announced that the league had withdrawn the fines imposed on the players and their respective teams who donned black warmup shirts before games to show support for the most recent victims of gun violence in Minnesota, Dallas and Baton Rouge. The $500 fines for the New York Liberty, Indiana Fever and Phoenix Mercury players ($300 more than the usual uniform violation fines) were criticized by the players, NBA superstars like Carmelo Anthony, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who said that his organization, the National Action Network, would pay the players’ fines.

The obvious question arises about what kind of disconnect there must be between the league and its players and teams and, really, what was the basis for the initial fine in the first place. Teams, like the defending champion Minnesota Lynx, seem to be supportive of the players, even despite backlash from local law enforcement. Yet the league’s initial reaction was to impose fines. Something got lost along the way, and now not only are the WNBA players getting all of the praise they deserve for speaking out and sending a positive message that they oppose violence, the league just looks downright foolish. The WNBA would have been wise to learn a lesson from the NBA’s decision not to impose fines on players like LeBron James and Kevin Garnett for wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts on the court in the wake of grand jury decisions in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases. Instead, they should have sided with the players in the first place, even though that might upset sponsors like Verizon and Draft Kings who pay to have their names on the game jerseys. That, possibly more than any one factor, probably led to the fines in the first place, and if I had to wager, the decision to hand out in the fines in the first place probably had more to do with that than anything else. 

Then there is Chris Sale getting all creative with his throwback Chicago White Sox jersey on Saturday and getting scratched from the lineup. In what has already been an interesting season for the Sox, starting with Adam LaRoche retiring, because the team didn’t want the first baseman bringing his teenage son into the clubhouse anymore, as well as the team starting off hot, but now watching their playoff chances slowly disappear, Sale slicing up his jersey in a different kind of protest is a whole different realm of weird. Making matters even stranger, Sale also supposedly destroyed a few of his teammates uniforms in the process, and the team hit the field wearing the red, white, and blue throwbacks from the 1980s, instead of the 1976 ones (sans shorts, sadly) that probably give a few people flashbacks to some bad acid they had at a Peter Frampton concert that year.

Now, I can’t believe I’m going to say this about a guy who makes millions of dollars a year playing a game throwing a temper tantrum, but good for Chris Sale. Those jerseys, the first made to be worn untucked, are horrible, and also are reminiscent of a time when the White Sox were equally crappy. They were a team best known for publicity stunts like those hideous uniforms and the (possibly racist and homophobic) Disco Demolition Night in 1979 that almost turned into a full-scale riot. Why would you want to revisit that? Why wouldn’t you just ask hometown hero Chance the Rapper to design a special jersey instead since he’s already helping to create fresh new hats for the team? It feels like people would like that more than revisiting the sad past.

As Paul Lukas at ESPN (the guy who probably knows and cares more about uniforms than just about anybody else) points out, there have been other instances of players voicing their opinions about the jersey they get paid a ton of money to put on, but the Sale thing, if true, is really a weird instance. Yet was Sale’s possible (as of this writing the team won’t confirm that he indeed cut up the jerseys, but he has been suspended for five days) foray into the world of fashion design a protest against the team’s sartorial choices or a way to let the team knows he’s done with the South Side? Sale, last season’s American League strikeout leader, has been rumored to be on the market with the MLB trade deadline coming up, and maybe, just maybe, he’s just fed up with Chicago and deep dish pizza, and this was his way of letting that be known. If it is indeed the latter, consider Sale’s taking a blade to those ugly ass uniforms as another way, albeit a very strange new one, that our athletes can use uniforms to send a message. 

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