You’ve probably heard by now that Tennessee coach Pat Summitt decided to put her players’ names back on their jerseys. In fact, if you would have been near my house around 6 p.m. Central time Wednesday, you would have literally “heard” about it because I was yelling,”Look at that! Look at that! The names! The names!” when I tuned into the Tennessee-Louisville game.
Certainly, there are people who couldn’t care less about this topic. Which I suppose I understand. But what I don’t get at all is anyone who actively opposes names on jerseys. I loathe that saying, “The only name that matters is the one on the front of the jersey.”
I mean, seriously, I can’t stand that. It goes against everything I love about sports and even why I became a sports writer. The individual does matter. Being on a team should never mean giving up your identity. It should mean blending your identity with other identities to pursue a common goal.
It fascinates me how individuals blend on a team. But even the suggestion of teammates striving to be undistinguishable from each other flat-out gives me the creeps.
I covered a Women’s World Cup soccer game in 2003 when the United States faced North Korea. As you could guess, we were not allowed to talk to the North Korean players. Their coach and a team officials – all men – did the talking. Not that we could understand what they actually said; we had to rely on the translator. The answers were short and formulaic.
Whatever real insight we reporters got about the women who played for North Korea came from a South Korean man who was assigned as a team liaison. The North Korean delegation needed him to translate and help them navigate their way around, but they couldn’t stop him from talking to us.
All we wanted to do was individualize and humanize these women _ which, grotesquely, is considered subversive in North Korea. They all had identical short haircuts, which were as unflattering as they possibly could have been, short of giving them crewcuts.They were all made to look alike and interchangeable.
Which, as far as I’m concerned, is frighteningly close to “disposable.” As if they were those little plastic soldiers kids play Army with – all replaceable.
Now, to go ahead and jump off the deep end … on my very short list of favorite “Twilight Zone” episodes is “Number 12 Looks Just Like You.” It’s about a future society in which everyone in their late teens goes through something called “the transformation” during which they are made to look like whatever pattern of beautiful/handsome human they choose.
A young woman named Marilyn, however, does not want to go through the transformation. She wants to maintain her individuality. She has no desire to become “beautiful” in the cookie-cutter way that the procedure guarantees. In fact, she fears it and rejects it.
At one point, Marilyn asks those who’ve undergone the transformation, “Is that good, being like everybody? Isn’t that the same as being nobody?”
And later, when her mother _ who years earlier had picked pattern “Number 12” for herself _ asks her why she’s resisting the chance to be “beautiful,” Marilyn laments, “Don’t you understand? They don’t care whether you’re beautiful or not. They just want everyone to be the same, that’s all!”
It occurs to me that not everybody has seen this episode a hundred times like I have, so won’t reveal how the situation is resolved.
OK, some of you now might be saying, “Good grief, Voepel, lay off the Mountain Dew and back away from the laptop. Not having names on jerseys is no big deal. It isn’t about stripping individual identity, for pete’s sake. Nobody was making the players all look exactly the same. Furthermore, even when they didn’t have names, the players still had numbers!”
Uh-huh. And what is the phrase – or variation of – that we all use when we refer to being “de-personalized” by some entity?
“They don’t really care. You’re just a number to them.”
Teams are not made up of “numbers.” They are made up of people. Sure, numbers in sports are part of the identification, and in some cases become iconic. But for the most part, spectators/fans don’t remember numbers. Or if they do, they only remember the numbers of players who were particularly significant to them.
Summitt took the names off the jerseys before the 2004-05 season because she wanted the focus to be on the team as a whole, not specific individuals. It’s awfully hard to contradict a coach who’s won over 1,000 games, but this was just one of those instances where I didn’t agree with the logic.
As I wrote for ESPN.com back when Summitt made this move, the last thing that women’s basketball needs is MORE anonymity. Fans do get interested in individual players – their talent, their style, their background. And people who aren’t “fans” but might sometimes tune into the sport usually do so because they’ve heard of a certain player and have an interest in seeing her. They’ve heard her name.
To me, not having names on the backs of jerseys makes it more difficult to identify players. And that’s especially the case when you’re watching a televised game between teams you don’t see often, but you know the names of the players. Odds are unless you print out a roster or have your computer on and are linked to it, you may have more trouble picking them out just by numbers than you would if the names were there. Isn’t the point of spectator sports to make it easier for the spectator?
And before someone says, “Oh, you can’t always read the names that well, anyway – either in person or on TV,” I say people can read them well enough to pretty quickly tell who the person is. You only have to see a flash to catch how long the name is and probably what letter it starts with. That’s usually all you need.
I also realize some teams don’t have names because it’s not “traditional” for their uniforms, the most marquee example in women’s hoops being UConn. It’s supposedly part of the Huskies’ “swag” and prestige, like with the New York Yankees. I don’t agree with the idea, but I know that as long as coach Geno Auriemma is there, he won’t change because it’s become one of their distinguishing characteristics in his mind and probably that of the fans.
The thing is, it never was a distinguishing characteristic of Tennessee. It was Summitt’s decision based on her feeling going into one season _ a feeling she maintained up until this week’s change of heart. Which she said was prompted by so many requests from fans.
I say three cheers for Summitt. She didn’t have to do this; heck, she doesn’t have to do anything. But she obviously did care what the fans thought. Admittedly, it took five years for her to change back, but that just means that even when she has her heels dug in, she’s willing to un-dig them. (I’m not going to speculate what this might mean someday in terms of her feelings on the UConn series. Don’t want to push it.)
I’m just extremely glad – as if I haven’t hammered this home enough – that the names are back at Tennessee, a program that so many other schools emulate. I wish names were on all schools’ jerseys. People may say it’s only cosmetic, but I think it’s both practical and symbolic.
The name on the front says who you play for, and that’s very important. The name on the back says who you are. And that’s very important, too.