Uni Watch: To tuck or not to tuck

ESPN's new "30 for 30" short film, "Untucked," tells the story of how Marquette's basketball uniforms were redesigned to include untucked jerseys in the late 1970s -- a key chapter in uniform history. One the most interesting moments in the film comes when Bo Ellis, the Marquette player who was given the opportunity by coach Al McGuire to redesign the team's uniforms, explains why he came up with the untucked style:

"One of the reasons why I always used to pull my shirt out of my pants was that when it was tucked in, my jersey was so tight that I didn't feel good when I was out playing," Ellis says in the film. "So once I had pulled it out and started playing, it was a lot looser and [had] a lot better fit. I didn't feel restricted."

That makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, who tucks in their shirt when playing sports, or when doing any other physical activity? Like Ellis said, it's all about freedom of movement and eliminating any restrictions, and a tucked-in shirt is definitely more restrictive, even with today's super-stretchy fabrics.

But despite that seemingly self-evident logic, most sports leagues require their players to tuck their jerseys into their uniform pants. Part of this lies in the very nature of a uniform, which is supposed to convey class, dignity, status and respect. How can you project those qualities if you're looking like a slob with your shirttail hanging out? Or at least that's the implicit thinking behind the tuck regulations.

Naturally, that provokes a bit of a backlash from certain players who instinctively chafe at any kind of stuffy-seeming authority (or who just prefer a more casual, laid-back look). This has created an endless push-pull cycle that usually plays out like so:

The Voice of Authority: "You have to tuck in your jersey. It looks better, it shows respect for your team and your uniform, and it's just the way it's done."

The Free Spirit: "Relax, dad. The world won't stop spinning if I untuck my jersey a bit, and I'll perform better, to boot. Look good, feel good, play good!"

Authority: "If I let you do it, I'd have to let everyone do it. Where would it end?"

Free Spirit: "How about where does it start? Jeez, some people are so uptight."

And so on. In the end, the Voice of Authority usually wins, but it also ends up looking old and stodgy in the process.

For a while there in the late 1970s and early '80s, however, the untucked look had a pretty strong presence on the basketball court, and not just at Marquette. The "30 for 30" documentary implies that no other schools ever went untucked because they didn't want to look like they were copying Marquette, and that the NCAA banned untucked jerseys shortly after Marquette debuted them. But that's not quite true -- a few schools followed Marquette's lead and experimented with the untucked look before the NCAA dropped the ban hammer, including Arizona State, Cal State Fullerton, DePaul, UMass, UTEP, West Virginia (with the team name on the back shirttail!) and several others. The untucked look also trickled down to high school basketball during this same period.

Meanwhile, women's hoops teams were also experimenting with untucked jerseys around that time. Colleges, high schools, the short-lived Women's Professional Basketball League -- they all went untucked. Uniform catalogs from this period routinely showed untucked women's basketball designs.

To Uni Watch's knowledge, no NBA team has ever gone untucked. The league mandates that all players keep their jerseys tucked in and in recent years has even added a silicone rubber strip to the shorts' inner waistband to help keep the jerseys in place. (Maybe Tim Duncan removes that strip from his shorts because his jersey comes untucked with suspicious regularity.)

So that covers basketball. How do the other sports shape up in the untucked sweepstakes? Here's a sport-by-sport look:

Baseball: Uni Watch is aware of only one MLB team that has ever gone untucked: the "Leisure Suit"-era White Sox, who wore pajama-style untucked jerseys from 1976 through 1981. (As a footnote, the Mariners also went untucked for the first several innings of a 1998 "turn ahead the clock" game. But then Royals skipper Tony Muser complained that this would give Seattle an unfair advantage because the untucked players could more easily be nicked by a pitch, so the Mariners tucked in for the rest of the game.)

In recent years, more and more MLB players have begun untucking their jerseys after a win. This ritual became a visual signature for the Brewers a few seasons back, supposedly as a tribute to Milwaukee outfielder Mike Cameron's blue collar father, who used to untuck his shirt after a hard day's work (although the practice was a bit controversial in some parts).

Minor league teams routinely engage in all sorts of wacky promotions, some of which have probably involved untucked jerseys, although nothing immediately comes to mind. If you know of some examples, speak up.

Football: Early football jerseys often included a buttoned panel designed to loop under the groin area to help keep the jersey tucked in. This feature, variously known as a crotch extension or a diaper (two real winners to choose from there, eh?), is still used occasionally. But most players now just stuff their shirttails into their pants and hope for the best or, more often, wear a jersey that's cropped right at the waistline, creating the illusion of tuckedness. One player in the latter category includes -- wait for it -- Justin Tuck.

Back in the 1970s and '80s, it was common to see college football players wearing cropped jerseys that exposed their midriffs. These jerseys weren't so much untucked as untuckable, because they were too short to be tucked in. The NCAA eventually banned them.

Hockey: Hockey is the one major sport whose jerseys have always been designed to be worn untucked. Why? Because early hockey jerseys were wool sweaters, and the tradition of the untucked sweater has stuck. But just as the other sports have their contrarians who refuse to stay tucked, hockey has had players who've refused to stay untucked. The most prominent example, of course, is Wayne Gretzky, who famously wore his jersey partially tucked into one of his hip pads (which led the NHL's uniform manufacturer at the time, CCM, to put two of its logos, instead of one, on Gretzky's rear shirttail, just to ensure that one of them would be visible).

Other hockey players who've tucked in their jerseys to varying degrees have included Patrice Bergeron, Rod Brind'Amour, Matt Duchene, Tobias Enstrom, Mikhail Grabovski, Martin Havlat, Jaromir Jagr, Ales Kotalik, Ilya Kovalchuk, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Petr Nedved, Alex Ovechkin, Martin St. Louis, Alexander Semin, Kris Versteeg and a bunch more (many of whom are listed in this discussion board thread).

But the tucked look is now an endangered species on the ice, because the NHL banned it at the start of this season. Some players were immediately whistled for penalties, although the league then dialed back the enforcement just a tad.

Soccer: FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, doesn't have a specific uniform regulation pertaining to tucking. But the organization's "Guidelines for FIFA Match Officials" handbook instructs officials to make sure the players maintain a "tidy appearance throughout the match (shirts tucked into shorts and socks pulled up)."

Those standards tend to be rather unevenly enforced, however, and it's now common to see lots of untucked players on the pitch (which some observers aren't too happy about). This rise of the untucked look may be due to the influence of several key untuckers over the years, including Manchester United stars Dennis Law and George Best in the 1960s, AC Milan's Franco Baresi and Tottenham Hotspur's Glen Hoddle in the 1980s and France's Zinedine Zidane in the mid-2000s.

More recently, kit manufacturers have been making the shirts a bit shorter, which may explain why some of the this year's World Cup kit unveilings have featured the untucked look, something that once would have been unthinkable for a World Cup unveiling.

Fans: The great irony about athletes being required to tuck in their jerseys is that the millions upon millions of fans who buy and wear replicas of those athletes' jerseys almost always wear them untucked. The protocol of fans going untucked is so entrenched that any fan who tucks in is immediately chastised for looking like a doofus-and-a-half.

You might think this is because athletes just naturally look good with a tucked-in jersey while fans look dorky. But no, that's not it -- it's all about the pants. Simply put, tucking in looks good when the jersey is part of a full uniform but not so hot if you're wearing jeans, khakis, cargo shorts, or anything other than the jersey's matching uniform pants. This rule was handily demonstrated back in January, when Peyton Manning showed up to a pre-Super Bowl news conference wearing a jersey tucked into his sweatpants and promptly found himself targeted for some well-deserved abuse.

Will untucked jerseys ever become common on the field? It seems unlikely, but then basketball jerseys with sleeves seemed pretty unlikely just 15 months ago, so you never know. And if you believe that the worlds of uniforms and civilian attire often cross-pollinate (which indeed they do), consider this: There's now a line of men's shirts that are specifically designed to be worn untucked.

(Special thanks to Yusuke Toyoda for his assistance with the soccer section of this column.)

Paul Lukas has a cat named Tucker (no, really!). If you liked this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, 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.