Uniform memorials honor tragedies' victims

Getty, AP

The shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have provoked an outpouring of sympathy and grief throughout the world -- and that includes the world of sports uniforms.

The first uni-related response to the tragedy, at least to Uni Watch's knowledge, took place on Friday night, just hours after the shooting, when NBA star Kevin Durant wrote "Newtown CT" on his sneakers. Since then, there have been many other uni-borne gestures, including these:

• On Saturday, all players and caddies at the Father-Son Challenge golf tournament in Orlando, Fla., wore black ribbons.

• Also on Saturday, two English Premier League soccer matches featured players wearing black armbands: Queens Park Rangers versus Fulham and Aston Villa versus Liverpool.

• More from Saturday: The U.S. women's soccer team wrote "SHES" -- for Sandy Hook Elementary School -- on some improvised wristbands.

• Sunday was the NFL's turn. The Giants had the school's initials handwritten at the base of their helmet stripe; the Patriots added a memorial decal; and several players inscribed personal messages on their equipment.

• "Monday Night Football" brought one more NFL team into the fold as the Jets wore an "S.H.E.S." decal. In addition, Titans running back Chris Johnson wrote the names of the victims on his cleats.

• Also on Monday, the UConn men's and women's basketball teams added an "SH" patch, with a green and white ribbon for the coaches. Green and white are the school colors of Sandy Hook Elementary.

• And Tuesday brought the boldest move so far, as the Providence basketball team wore green uniforms with "Sandy Hook" in place of the players' names.

Uniform memorials for fallen teammates and other members of a team's "family" (owners, clubhouse attendants, broadcasters and so on) date back all the way to the 1870s. But uniform memorials in response to non-sports-related events were, until fairly recently, a much rarer phenomenon. When President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in the 1960s, for example, not a single team in any of the four major professional sports leagues acknowledged their deaths with a patch, armband or helmet decal. That silence would be unthinkable if a similar tragedy were to occur today.

The bellwether moment for uniforms memorializing the victims of non-sports events appears to have been the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. The Rockies quickly added a "CHS" sleeve patch, which they wore for the rest of the 1999 season. When the NHL season began, the Avalanche wore a "CHS" shoulder patch.

In the 13 years since Columbine, non-sports tragedies have frequently been acknowledged on uniforms, to the point that uniforms have become a good barometer of how broadly an event has affected our cultural consciousness. If something is significant enough to provoke a response on a uniform -- especially if it happens with multiple teams, or even multiple sports -- you know it's serious.

Here's a selective timeline of uniform memorials in response to non-sports tragedies in the post-Columbine era. This list isn't comprehensive, but it gives a good sense of the types of events that have been uni-recognized:

Sept. 11, 2001: The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 brought an immediate response from the sports world. All MLB teams covered up the MLB logo on the back of their jerseys with an American flag patch for the balance of the 2001 season and the postseason. The Mets took things a step further by adding commemorative sleeve embroidery and wearing first responder caps. In the NFL, teams added American flag helmet decals that remain in place to this day. Countless college football and basketball programs also added American flags, many of which are still being worn today.

Columbia disaster, 2003: After the space shuttle Columbia crashed during re-entry on Feb. 1, 2003, the Astros lived up to their name by wearing the shuttle's mission patch on their sleeves for the 2003 season.

Hurricane Katrina, 2005: Katrina appears to have been the first natural disaster to provoke a widespread uniform response. MLB teams wore Red Cross helmet decals to help raise relief funds. The Yankees went further, adding a Salvation Army sleeve patch. And many college football teams, especially those in the South, wore hurricane warning flag decals or Gulf state decals.

Virginia Tech shootings, 2007: The Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007 had a particularly wide-ranging impact on the uni-verse. As you'd expect, the biggest response was at Virginia Tech itself, where all of the school's athletic teams wore memorial patches for the rest of 2007 and where there also were lots of on-field symbols.

As for the rest of the sports world, here's a sampling of some of the uni-related responses to the shootings:

I-35W bridge collapse, 2007: When the westbound portion of the Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis collapsed on Aug. 1, 2007, killing 13 people and injuring 145, the Twins responded by wearing a large batting helmet decal. (They later marked the disaster's one-year anniversary with a sleeve patch.)

Christchurch earthquake, 2011: The earthquake that hit the New Zealand city of Christchurch on Feb. 22, 2011, killed 185 people. Three days later, the New Zealand and Australian cricket teams played each other, with both teams wearing black armbands. In Super Rugby, teams wore red and black armbands -- the colors of the Christchurch Crusaders. The Fiji rugby team wore little red collar tabs. And there was also talk of New Zealand's national rugby team, the All Blacks, changing their iconic fern logo from silver to red, but that ended up not happening.

Japanese tsunami, 2011: After the terrible tsunami that struck Japan on March, 11, 2011, the J-League -- that's Japanese soccer -- responded by creating an inspirational logo patterned like a soccer ball. Meanwhile, players on the Spanish soccer team Valencia FC showed their support by wearing their jersey names in Japanese. (The team provided a translation sheet so fans could follow along.)

Aurora shootings and Colorado wildfires, 2012: The Broncos responded to two separate events -- the movie theater shootings in Aurora, Colo., and the devastating Colorado wildfires -- by adding a ribbon decal based on the Colorado state flag, which they've been wearing throughout the 2012 season.

That's quite a litany of sadness. Let's hope we don't have any more tragedies to acknowledge on uniforms for a long, long time.

Paul Lukas expects we'll be seeing more Newtown memorials in the weeks to come. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. 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.