2007: A lace odyssey   

Updated: February 15, 2007, 2:58 PM ET

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Something's afoot -- literally.

That's been the de facto slogan lately here at Uni Watch HQ, where Uni Watch's obsessive attentions have been focused on a uniform element that's probably flown under your radar until now -- an element that gets no respect, even though it's worn by virtually all players in all sports and offers a near-endless supply of aesthetic possibilities. Ladies and gentlemen, Uni Watch gives you … the shoelace.

Uni Watch
No, seriously. Think shoelaces are too petty to merit serious scrutiny? Think there's been no legitimate shoelace news since Randall Cunningham wore those gold-tipped laces? Think again, smart guy -- there's a lot more going on down there between the grommets than you realize. Recent case in point, from the world of women's college hoops: When Penn State and Wisconsin both wore pink uniforms on Feb. 4 to promote breast cancer awareness, the Lady Lions went the extra mile by wearing pink laces, while the Badgers didn't (you can decide for yourself whether this reflected Wisconsin's insufficient commitment to cancer research or just its sound aesthetic judgment).

And that's just the plastic-coated tip of the shoelace iceberg. In the NHL, an increasing number of players are switching from the standard white laces to yellow, and at least one NFL player was forced to make an equipment change last year after running afoul of the league's shoelace-color regulations (that's right, the NFL has shoelace-color regulations). Once you start looking, in fact, you'll find loads of shoelace-related details out there.

Fortunately, there's no need for you to look, because Uni Watch has already done the looking for you. Here's a sport-by-sport look at the state of lace relations:

Football: Back in the day, everyone wore black cleats with white laces, and that was that. Incredibly enough, this look -- a Uni Watch favorite -- is now banned in the NFL, where current regulations mandate the use of black laces with black cleats and white with white. But players get away with violating this rule all the time: Joey Porter has worn black and yellow (here's a closer look), Jim Maxwell has worn orange, and red is the favored color for Greg Spires and Alex Smith. Every now and then you'll even see a player breaking out the old-school white-on-black look, as Mike McKenzie did during last month's NFC Championship Game. Matt Hasselbeck used to go white-on-black too, but officials put the kibosh on that in August 2006, when they made him switch to black laces prior to a preseason game.

Happily, the NCAA has no problem with the white-on-black look, which is the signature footwear style of several schools, most notably USC and Alabama (well, usually).

Hockey: White laces have been the standard for decades, but yellow is slowly creeping into the game. Current devotees include Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Koslov, Alex Ovechkin (who's erroneously shown wearing white laces in NHL 07), Jaromir Jagr (whose yellow laces really clash with the Rangers' color scheme), Marc Savard (now there's how to match your laces to your uni!), and Petr Nedved.

Note that most of those players are European or Russian. That's apparently because many European players grew up wearing skates made by Graf, a German company that uses yellow laces as the default color for most of its skates. But the white/yellow choice isn't just a matter of color -- for years yellow laces have usually been waxed (which some players prefer because, depending on who you ask, they're easier to tie and/or don't come loose), while white ones are usually unwaxed. Although waxed laces have more recently become available in multiple colors, the historical association between yellow and wax is still strong, so most players who prefer the waxed style tend to wear yellow.

And wait, it gets better. Hockey officials always lace up in white, but not the same white as the players. That's because the players' laces, whether waxed or unwaxed, are accented by dark ticking stripes, but the officials' laces are ticking-free -- they're pure white. Or at least that's the idea -- but linesman Jean Morin, responding to a Uni Watch query on the NHL Officials Association message board, reports that "almost every guy on our staff" wears the ticking-stitched laces. Uni Watch likes this, since the dark ticking creates a zebra-stripe effect that's perfect for the officials.

Then there's Paul Coffey, who liked his skates laced as tightly as possible, so he wore two laces on each skate -- one running from the bottom of the skate to the midpoint, and the other from the midpoint to the top. The resulting fit was so tight that the training staff would literally have to cut the laces off of him after each game.

Oh, and remember those pink laces worn by the Penn State women's hoops team? Maybe they took the idea from -- brace yourself -- Tie Domi.

Baseball: Historically speaking, most early ballplayers wore black spikes with black laces, and for the most part that color-matching tradition continues today. Look around the majors and you'll see lots of black-on-black, blue-on-blue, red-on-red, and white-on-white. But you'll also see some exceptions: Jimmy Rollins briefly wore white laces last season, and Eric Gagne has always worn white. Jamie Moyer was consistently white-laced with the Mariners but switched to red upon joining the Phillies (maybe so as not to distract attention from his Liberty Bell stirrups).

Because sliding on a dirt infield can chop up your laces, baseball spikes have a means of shoelace protection: the elongated, flapped-over tongue (also found on soccer cleats, in order to provide a smooth kicking surface). Over the years this element has morphed from black to unfinished tan (Uni Watch's favorite version) to color-matched. Today, sadly, it's just another venue for logo creep.

There were some shoelace shenanigans on the diamond a few years ago, when several players got in the unfortunate habit of cutting little slits in their lower pant legs and then using their laces to tie down their cuffs, thereby making the footie-pajama style look even worse than usual. Thankfully, this unseemly maneuver -- the sight of which used to drive Uni Watch to the point of apoplexy -- has now been banned.

Basketball: In the NBA's early days, laces were almost always white, no matter whether the sneakers were white or black. But today, with the revolving door of hardcourt kicks styles, it's an ever-changing shoelace showcase out there. Some black-shod players stick to basic black laces, while others lace up in color. Similarly, some players with white sneakers go white-on-white, others go color-on-white, and some wear white against a contrasting colored tongue. If you can keep up with all this, you're way ahead of Uni Watch.

Can't quite feel the shoelace excitement? That's no surprise, since the industry has done nothing to promote itself. If ever there was an accessory in need of some good marketing, it's this one. Fortunately, Uni Watch has a can't-miss plan, which some enterprising shoelace brand would do well to adopt: Track down Zola Budd, Rich Karlis, and a few beach volleyball players, and shoot a commercial that shows them fawning over a pile of Acme shoelaces (or whatever your brand is called). Then, right at the end, the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson walks in. Karlis, with a knowing smile, hands him a pack of laces. Everyone laughs. Cue caption: "If Acme laces are good enough for this crowd, imagine how good they are for people who actually wear shoes." (And if you can't track down Shoeless Joe's ghost, try Bill Veeck's.)

Thank you, thank you -- see you at the Clio Awards dinner.

(Special thanks to Uni Watch intern Vince Grzegorek for his invaluable research assistance.)

Fish? Check. Barrel? Check. Now Where's That Shotgun?
Scientists have determined that only 37 people have the gene that makes them capable of watching the Pro Bowl without falling asleep, and 13 of them aren't even football fans. So you probably missed this year's game, which took place Saturday. The obvious news is that the uniforms were as bad as ever; the surprising news is that Bill Belichick didn't wear a sweatshirt; and the shoelace news is that several of the AFC players wore red laces. For lots of additional info on the latest edition of this annual design disaster, look here.

Paul Lukas really, really hates that moment when you pull up on a shoelace and it breaks. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, his answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here, and archives of his columns are available here, here, and here. Got feedback for him, or want to be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted? Contact him here.


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