The football uniform is a complex set of gear that undergoes nonstop evolution to meet the needs of players, fans, teams, referees and league officials.
While safety concerns are important, there are many other factors at play. Material technology, rules changes and playing style shape what players wear as much as equipment safety.
We’ve organized a history of the football uniform based on the equipment materials leather, plastic and spandex. Sound random? Check it out.
The Leather Years – 1890’s-1940’s
The First Football Uniform
Football evolved out of rugby as a collegiate sport, but in the early days football had few universal rules. At times it was a no-holds barred melee, possibly involving hundreds of people trying to move a ball from one place in town to another.
The first uniforms were rugby-type uniforms with wool or cotton sweaters and no padding. Wool was chosen because the game was played outside in the cold. As the rules of the game developed, players started donning padding. Leather was the toughest, most pliable material available. Leather patches represented the first uniform padding sewn directly on to the wool sweaters.
In 1901, the first under-the-jersey shoulder pads were produced. They were made of “heavy” leather and held in place with elastic straps.
The First Helmets and Cleats
Early players were more concerned with protecting their noses than their brains. The nose guard was invented in one year before the helmet. 1893 saw the first use of the football helmet. The first helmets were made of soft leather and stuck close to the head, mainly providing protection of the players ears like a rugby helmet.
Cleats go back long before the invention of American football. The earliest reports of cleat-like footwear come from 1500’s England. Football cleats mirrored early baseball cleats — high top leather boots with fixed-in-place rubber spikes. In the 1920’s, removable cleats were developed allowing players to adjust the length of the cleat for various field conditions.
Also in the 1920’s, he helmet improved to hardened leather, greatly reducing the effects of head concussions. The new helmets were bigger and had more cushion to protect the skull.
The Plastic Years – 1940’s-1990’s
The Birth of Plastic Helmets
Plastic helmets were introduced in 1939 but were quickly removed from the game because they were known to shatter and cause unexpected injury. They were reintroduced a year later with sturdier plastic and more padding. Helmets only became mandatory in the NFL in 1943, four years after they were made mandatory in college football.
One of the most iconic moments in football uniform history occurred in 1948. A Los Angeles Rams running back painted ram horns on his helmet and became the first professional football player to sport a helmet design, with a custom paint job to boot. Fans responded positively to logos because they made it much easier to tell which team a player was on, especially on black and white television.
Mouthing Off. Facing Off.
In the late 1940’s, mouthguards appeared. Before 1950, more than half of all injuries involved a player’s teeth. Widespread mouthguard usage has dropped dental sports injuries to just 3% of all injuries.
While there was quite a bit of early experimentation with face coverings, covering bars were not part of standard uniforms until Otto Graham’s helmet in 1953. Face masks started as a single horizontal bar, but quickly grew to feature many different multibar designs.
Colors and Numbers
With the growing popularity of color television in the 1960’s, full color uniforms become more important and teams began to use brighter colors in their outfits. NFL uniform rules started in 1973 and included a numbering system for jerseys based on a player’s position.
Big Plastic Pads
Plastic and fiberglass shoulder pads came on the scene in the 1960’s. Running between the tackles was the name of the game and wide, heavy plastic pads helped teams move the pile. The game has since navigated to passing and finding open spaces, leading to lighter, slimmer pads that give players more mobility and less extra weight.
From the 1970’s to 1990’s, many linemen wore additional padding around their necks. Neck rolls were designed to prevent hyperextension of the neck and damage to the nerves running from the spine to the arms. These pads were very noticeable. Sometimes it looked like a pillow was sticking out of the back of a player’s neck. Players eventually stopped using neck rolls due to growing evidence they were not effective at preventing injuries.
The Spandex Years – 1990’s-Today
Stitch and Stretch
As players became more concerned with opponents slowing them down by hanging on to their uniforms, teams started adding laces down the sides of their loose-fitting polyester jerseys. This let them tighten the fabric to make a more form-fitting jersey.
Uniform fashion then turned to tear-away jerseys made of large mesh that would rip when grabbed. A runner could literally tear away from a potential tackler. By the end of most games, some ballcarriers were hardly wearing any jersey at all, so the league disallowed the innovation.
It wasn’t until 1997 that the Denver Broncos introduced a uniform made with of stretchy fabric down the sides. Spandex jerseys were born and soon uniforms were made of mostly stretching fabric.
Light and Fast
Loose sleeves quickly disappeared with the form-fitting wonder fabric. Short sleeves were replaced with a tank top-like jersey. A ring of elastic was added to the armholes to tightly fit under shoulder pads. In the late-1990’s, Nike redesigned the football uniform, cutting down of the number of seams from 22 to 5, making the jersey more durable, lighter and faster.
Rules of Adornment
Official uniform rules have grown to include over nine pages of regulations. Bandanas and face paint were banned. Fines of up to $100,000 are given to players who violate the NFL uniform code. In 2016, under criticism that they are stifling self-expression, the NFL instituted the “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative which allows athletes to wear custom designed cleats one week out of the year to show support for a charity of their choosing. They also relaxed some rules to allow athletes to wear custom cleats during warm-ups but not during games.
Player Safety is the Focus
There is a growing tide of concern about player protection from head injuries, probably spawned by a recent billion-dollar class action lawsuit against the NFL. The league is now required to spend money on improving safety through additional uniform research. In 2013, the NFL ended an exclusive contract with helmet manufacturer Riddell, allowing players to shop around and wear the safest helmets they can find. Starting in 2018, the NFL started banned players from using helmet models that do not reach safety standards. Some players protested this change because their old helmets fit them better or they were used to them (eyes on Antonio Brown).
If uniform changes were only influenced by safety and performance needs, the uniform would look very different, maybe more futuristic. We’d see players transitioning toward wearing full bodysuits that make them nearly impossible to grab, with high-tech fabrics that make them even more slippery.
Perhaps that’s what lies in store, but football is also a sport full of tradition and resistance to change. Uniforms will look different in the future, but changes will develop slowly, moderated by the interests of players, fans, teams and the league.
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