One of the NFL’s lesser-known uniform guidelines is that uni numbers must be displayed not just on the fronts and backs of jerseys, but also on either the sleeves (an option chosen by eight of the league’s 32 teams) or the shoulders (the other 24 teams). Why the lopsided ratio? For starters, sleeves are now crowded with other graphics, like the Reebok swish and secondary team logos. But the main reason is much simpler: Sleeves are disappearing.
NFL jersey sleeves are now largely vestigial, having been replaced by a gaping armhole and just enough fabric to stretch over the shoulder pad, often with an unsightly elasticized cuff to seal the opening. Styles vary a bit by position: Linemen and running backs, who are obsessed with minimizing their opponents’ handholds, are usually near-sleeveless, while most quarterbacks and kickers still have semi-normal, loose-flapping sleeves (the former because they need free arm movement, the latter because, y’know, nobody cares what kickers wear anyway). Overall, however, the receding-sleeve trend is unmistakable.
It’s been a long time coming. Up until the early 1960s, NFL jerseys were like sweatshirts, with sleeves routinely reaching the wrist. But by the early ’70s, sleeves were around elbow-length, and within a decade the league had settled on a biceps-length T-shirt look. That held until the mid 1990s, when super-tight micro-sleeves began appearing, leading to today’s sorry situation.
The current problem is twofold. First, many teams accent their sleeves with stripe patterns, which in most cases were designed decades ago and were meant to fall just above the elbow but have had to migrate up the arm in recent years as sleeves have done their disappearing act. Check out the Steelers or the Lions and you’ll see how silly this has become—there’s no sleeve left for the stripes to encircle. So the stripes now resemble sergeant’s patches—more on the sleeve than around the sleeve—which isn’t how they were meant to work. Consequently, they look like crap.
But the bigger problem is that those big armholes often leave players’ upper torsos exposed as they lunge this way and that. Uni Watch, for one, does not need to see a 350-pound lineman’s armpit hair as he goes about his business. Please, Mr. Tagliabue: Let’s restore real sleeves—and with them, some real dignity—pronto.