Notre Dame and Under Armour: Building a Unique Uniform

Not being a sports fan, press reports about Under Armour’s new uniforms for the University of Notre Dame’s famous football team would normally get a pass from me.  Yes, I graduated from Notre Dame Law, and yes, I own a few articles of clothing by Under Armour – Superman shirts, natch.  Yet those facts alone usually wouldn’t be enough to attract my attention.  However when I read that the company looked to the buildings of Notre Dame itself for inspiration when designing these particular uniforms, that connection seemed worth exploring.

If you know a little bit about Notre Dame, even from such films as “Knute Rockne, All American” or “Rudy”, you know that the football team’s helmets are painted gold.  This references the Main Building or “Golden Dome” at the heart of the school’s campus, which is topped by a gold dome crowned with a statue of Our Lady.  You may also be aware of the giant mosaic mural affectionately known as “Touchdown Jesus”, This covers the south facade of Hesburgh Library, and is visible from the Notre Dame football stadium.  The image of a triumphant Christ, His arms raised in blessing, is reminiscent of a football referee signaling a touchdown.

The headline of the article linked to above isn’t exactly correct, in that the new uniforms don’t look like campus buildings themselves.  That sort of design would prove rather cumbersome when running around a field: someone in a suit shaped like one of the beehive turrets on Sorin Hall would find it difficult to slip past an offensive onslaught, for example.  Instead, the references are in one instance, subtle, and in another, quite bold.

Just as the team helmets are a nod to the university’s headquarters, so the sleeves and the sock tops of the new uniforms now bear a stripe referencing the striped top of Hesburgh Library.  I can’t say that I like that building, which is one of those mid-century concrete monstrosities by disciples of Le Corbusier.  Nevertheless I can appreciate why, for Notre Dame football players and fans, this subtle reference to Touchdown Jesus will  be regarded with affection.

The real eye-opener though, is the design for the “Shamrock Series”, a newer sports tradition at Notre Dame.  The shirt and accompanying gloves feature an intricate, Renaissance Revival pattern, which reproduce the pattern of the floor tiles inside the central hall of the Golden Dome itself.  Now this is a form of architectural reference in clothing design, done in quite a passionate, attractive way.  Yes, I know it’s probably over the top for most people, but if the Italian condottieri and Spanish conquistadores of the 15th and 16th centuries were around today, they would probably be wearing something like this base layer beneath their steel armor.

Of course, placing a stripe or tile with an architectural reference onto an article of clothing made for athletes, then translated for public consumption, isn’t going to convert me into a football fan.  However, even this non-sports fan scrivener might be willing to pick up a shirt or a pair of socks bearing such a reference, if the mood strikes.  I appreciate a bold design, and much as I hated the isolation and the interminable South Bend winters, I do remember good times like tailgate parties in the stadium parking lot during football season, even if the games had no interest for me.  And in building these updated uniforms upon the architectural beauty of the campus itself, Notre Dame and Under Armour have done a great job.

Detail of Under Armour's design for the Notre Dame "Shamrock Series" uniforms

Detail of Under Armour’s design for the Notre Dame “Shamrock Series” uniforms




Healing and the Ancients: How Sports Medicine Builds on the Past

Yesterday as I lay on a table at the physical therapist’s, with a big bag of ice between my knees and a gigantic pile of hot, damp towels on my thigh, it occurred to me how smart the Romans really were.  I have an old knee/ankle injury that has been acting up, and since the only remedy for it is a combination of targeted exercise and rest, it is to the physical therapist that one must go.  If like me you are at all interested in history, or enjoy watching historical entertainment like “Rome” or the old sword-and-sandal epics, you cannot help but see the parallels between what our ancestors were doing millenia ago to treat what we might loosely term “sports injuries”, and what still remain among the best practices to restore human health today.

Chances are that even if you have never visited one yet, most of you reading this will spend will end up spending at least some part of your life in a physical therapist’s clinic.  The reasons why a doctor sends you there will vary, but they are not just places for athletes.  It could very well be that you end up with a physical therapist because of athletic injuries of course, but it could also just as easily be because of disabilities, accidents, recovery from surgery or, in the fullness of time, old age taking its toll.  Generally speaking, when you go to such a clinic you will see a whole range of ages among the patients, from teenagers who have injured themselves playing football or running, to very elderly people who are recovering from joint replacements.

What I find interesting in such places is the combination of new technology with ancient, tried-and-true methods of encouraging healing.  For example, at the clinic I go to there are different exercise machines designed to work different parts of the body, safely, using weights and resistance, along with machines like treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers to get the heart rate up and joints moving.  Many of these machines have digital technology with computers on board, to create various timing and usage programs.  The therapists themselves walk about using laptop and pad computers as they take notes, and track the progress of their patients.

Yet there also implements and methods which are unchanged from very ancient times. These could include such things as throwing and catching a heavy, rubber ball, or using sturdy straps and ropes to stretch out cramped muscles, or subjecting oneself to manipulation by the therapist, that could come right out of a description from one of Pliny the Younger’s letters.  For example, one of my newest exercises to loosen up and strengthen my ankle involves scattering a handful of marbles on the floor, and then using only my toes to pick each of them up and drop them individually in a cup, while the therapist times my performance.  It feels like a positively antediluvian exercise.

There is always some element of physical therapy involving pain, which has not changed in centuries, either.  One goes through the experience of having things bent, pushed, and pulled out of joint for what seems like an eternity, and then one is rewarded by being frozen or cooked to death – or both, simultaneously, through the use of ice packs or heating pads.  Of course if the therapist likes to combine Eastern and Western methods, you may also be pricked all over with pins, or have hot rocks put all over you, and other strange things.

Professional athletes are quite used to this sort of treatment, of course.  Recently for example I saw a commercial where a group of Brazilian soccer players were in their physical therapists’ clinic after a match, sitting in individual galvanized metal bathtubs, and each was being covered with massive piles of ice cubes up to their chest to reduce inflammation in their legs.  While these methods obviously work, for those of us not accustomed to such treatment on a regular basis, with sports medicine seemingly alien to our experience of spending most of the day sitting down, one simply holds on for dear life until it is all over.

Perhaps it is the history nerd in me, but I must confess I do rather like the idea of having a connection to the distant past when I go to such places.  There is a sense that the accumulated knowledge of centuries is at work, so that there is relief and healing in the hands of the competent people who run these places.  Modern pharmaceuticals are indeed wonderful things, for they alleviate a great deal of suffering. Yet for “sports injuries” to our bones, nerves, and muscles, human interaction and the personal attention paid to each patient brought to bear by a good physical therapist provides a degree of relief through communication, based on an understanding that one size does not fit all. This is a refreshingly old idea, in a world constantly seeking novelty.

Wall painting of patients and therapists in Ancient Egypt (c. 2,300 B.C.)
Tomb of the Physician, Saqqara, Egypt

The Courtier (Momentarily) Emerges from Beneath His Rock

Yesterday while reading the newspaper at lunch, The Courtier perused the section on celebrity sightings around the Nation’s Capital. There was a brief piece about a famous local hockey player, who had been spotted watching a televised football game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys football teams, at a local bar-restaurant. This scrivener was then rather taken aback to read the following statement, expressed parenthetically: “For those living under a rock, the Skins lost to Dallas by 2 points thanks to a late-game field goal.”

Since apparently The Courtier has been, unbeknownst to him, living under a rock for most of his life, in that he completely ignores such sports results and believes that they have no impact whatsoever on the joy and fruitfulness of his existence, perhaps it is time for him to emerge from beneath this alleged crag of unknowing, under which he has been trapped for decades, and ask that very serious, probing question: Are you kidding me?

To begin with, while it is true that The Courtier has never had much interest in sports, he is not entirely opposed to enjoying the watching of a few of them from time to time. Grand Slam tennis – i.e. Wimbledon, the U.S., French, and Australian Opens – and a European or World Cup soccer involving either F.C. Barcelona (“Barça”) or the Spanish national team will always draw his attention. However that is pretty much it, as far as his participation is concerned, unless he is made to attend or watch a sporting event under duress. For example, the single time The Courtier was dragged against his will to watch a Major League Baseball game, between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates, he brought along a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to keep him company.

The Courtier is very much aware that good, intelligent people follow professional sports teams, and enjoy themselves at these events; he is not, in any way, disparaging them for doing so, within reason.  Yet what does disturb him is the attitude taken by many that if one is not interested in such things, that one must be some sort of an oddity, or mental defective.  It is considered perfectly acceptable for a sports fan to say that he does not like reading important works of literature, or listening to a great symphony, because such things are not viewed by many as being necessary for the process of human civilization to continue. Yet if a non-sports fan says he does not like nor follow professional sports, he is often treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, or at least viewed with some combination of mistrust and condescension.

Some years ago in London, a conservative Norwegian friend who was both very athletic and very intellectual (as well as an insatiable consumer of single malts and aquavit), commented at dinner one evening that Karl Marx is now outdated in his assessment that religion is the opiate of the masses. Rather, The Courtier’s viking friend made the argument that today, sports has become opiate of the masses. It keeps the populace entertained and from asking too many questions, and it stops them from killing each other over whose village has the best ale or the prettiest girls. And, he further argued, while many nowadays will make no time at all at the weekend to attend religious services for an hour, sports fans will certainly make time – indeed, hours and hours of time – every weekend to sit down and watch a meaningless contest between overpaid entertainers, as to who can achieve a physical feat better within certain parameters.

This is perhaps a too-harsh assessment of the modern sports fan. As an initial matter the term “opiate of the masses”, as applied to religion, while attributed to Marx because he used it in one of his early books, is probably one that was taken from the Marquis de Sade, who had made a similar analogy a number of decades earlier. As both of these writers were, in a word, scum, it is not surprising that each would take such a negative view of religion. Yet that being said, to apply their theories to what ought to be a harmless entertainment does seem to be somewhat excessive.

The fact that The Courtier could care less about whether the Cowboys beat the Redskins, and by how much, does not mean that he is living under a rock. It means that he puts professional sports into the category in which it belongs: entertainment. Despite whatever avid sports fans may think of the sports they follow – football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and so on – that is all that these things are. And because such things really are nothing more than entertainment, The Courtier fails to see why he should pay any more attention to those particular types of entertainments than he does to any other forms of entertainment he does not like – such as “Glee”, the work of Michael Buble, “American Idol”, and the Tony Awards, to name a few.

So while The Courtier’s friends and followers (assuming he still has any after this post) will continue to comment, tweet, and post about baseball playoffs, football season, and so on, he will try his best from this point to keep his mouth shut, and to keep from falling asleep from what is to him the tedium of it all, while he pursues his own amusements and entertainments. Yet before submerging back below the crag beneath which he dwells, The Courtier does think it ought to be pointed out that a brief survey of an evening news program tells us something about what we value in our society. Following the national/local headlines and the weather, the portion of the program devoted to covering the entertainment known as sports far exceeds any reporting on the sciences, arts, business, or religion, unless there is a major crisis or scandal in one of these areas. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether that amount of coverage, for something which is ultimately an ephemeral entertainment, is really worth a proportional amount of our collective attention.

“St. Jerome in His Cave” by Joachim Patinir (c. 1515)
Museo del Prado, Madrid