The team in the long pants is Gate City Christian, a tiny Pentecostal high school in southwestern Virginia. No, the players didn't forget their game shorts, and they aren't wearing their warm-up pants -- the Warriors, as the team is called, always wear long pants, due to the school's religious tenets. (You can see video footage of the Gate City Christian uniforms at the top of this page.)
This isn't the first time religion has influenced athletic attire. Girls at Orthodox Jewish schools sometimes wear skirts, for example (there's even a Connecticut school whose girls' hoops team is called the Skirts; additional info and photos here), and Muslim women often compete in unconventional gear.
But those examples involve female athletes conforming to traditional notions of feminine modesty. It's much more uncommon to see male players following a faith-based dress code. In an effort to learn more, Uni Watch tracked down Gate City Christian's principal, Wayne Elliott, who was happy to talk about the team's unusual uniforms.
Uni Watch: A basketball team wearing long pants is new to me. What's it all about?
Wayne Elliott: We're a small Christian school, about 52 kids, and it's just a school dress code that we have, based on our Biblical beliefs and standards. It goes back to dressing in modest apparel -- that's the dress code we set, and the kids abide by it here at the school and at all school functions.
UW: And that code would be "no short pants."
UW: Please forgive my ignorance on this point, but is there a specific verse of the Bible that addresses this?
WE: There is, but I'd have to look it up -- I don't have it handy, but it's definitely in Scripture. And I don't know if you know this, but our girls' basketball team dresses in skirts. [And the school's cheerleading squad wears long skirts.]
UW: From a layman's standpoint, it seems like maybe you'd want the girls to wear pants as well, so they wouldn't show any skin. But I'm guessing you don't want the girls wearing pants or dressing the same as the boys, right?
WE: Yeah, because the Bible says there should be a separate distinction between a man and a woman in terms of their apparel, so that's what it's all about.
Allen Greene Photography
No, that isn't a scrimmage in warm-up pants. Those are the official game uniforms for Gate City Christian and Maryville Christian.
UW: I see your kids also wear T-shirts under their tanktop jerseys. Is that also about modesty?
WE: Yes, that's part of the same thing.
UW: How long have you been doing this?
WE: We started our boys' basketball program in 2002. We now have varsity, JV, girls' basketball, girls' volleyball -- it's really grown.
UW: Wow, that's pretty impressive for a school with only 52 kids! And have your boys always worn the long pants since the team's inception?
WE: Yes sir, they've always worn the long pants. We've had people say that it puts our team at a competitive disadvantage, but we don't see it that way. It's just a way of life for us, it's all we know, so we don't feel it hinders us. We've really got some really good, respectful kids, and they're willing to give up wearing shorts in order to follow the rules.
UW: Are there other schools that have similar dress codes?
WE: Yes. We play in the East Tennessee Christian School Conference, and all four schools in the conference wear the long pants. [The team also plays nonconference opponents -- some Christian, some not.]
UW: So that means you probably have a lot of pants versus pants games.
WE: Yes, that's right. But it's not a conference rule -- it's just that all schools in the conference happen to dress that way.
UW: Did your school start that trend?
WE: No sir, we didn't. I'm 44 years old, and this is something schools around here have been doing as long as I can remember. So it was already established by the time we started our athletics program in 2002.
UW: Do any of the kids ever complain or roll their eyes and ask why they can't wear shorts like the other team?
WE: No, they know our guidelines and are willing to abide by that.
UW: What about when you play an opposing team wearing conventional shorts -- do they ever give your kids the business or make fun of their outfits?
Allen Greene Photography
Gate City Christian's long pants don't seem to have impeded this drive to the basket.
WE: Nope, they're really respectful. I can't recall anything like that. There are some schools in our conference that require visiting teams to wear modest apparel too, although we don't do that at our gym, because I feel it wouldn't be fair to be pushing our preferences on people.
UW: So in those instances, a team that normally wears shorts would have to wear long pants when visiting one of these other schools?
WE: Yes, that's right. They'll even have a sign on the door that says, "All visiting teams must wear this apparel," and of course the coaches are told beforehand. To be honest with you, we did that during our first year, and I did have complaints from some people who felt it was a disadvantage to their teams, because they weren't used to wearing the pants like our team was used to it. But that's not why we changed it -- we changed it because I didn't want to force our beliefs on others.
Fair enough. But what's it like for the kids who wear the long pants? As Elliott noted, most of them have always dressed this way when playing sports, but one of the few exceptions is Travis Mullins, a 17-year-old senior who transferred to Gate City Christian in fifth grade. Prior to that, he attended a local public school, where he wore shorts in gym class and intramural athletics. Was it hard to get used to wearing pants when he began attending Gate City Christian?
"A little bit, but it wasn't that big of an adjustment," Mullins said. "I don't think it makes much difference in terms of hindering us or anything like that."
OK, but when Mullins sees a team dressed in conventional basketball uniforms, is there some little part of him that wishes his team could wear shorts, just once?
"In some ways, yes, you do want that, because I guess it would be lighter and not as hot," he said. "But aside from that, it doesn't bother me."
(Special thanks to Cory Wright for his research assistance and to Allen Greene for his photographs and behind-the-scenes help.)
Paul Lukas thinks it would be fair to say that when the ESPN cameras showed up in Gate City last week, the school was ready for its Uni Watch moment. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted or just ask him a question? Contact him here.