The Arkansas State football team suffered two devastating losses during the offseason, as player Markel Owens was shot to death during a home invasion and equipment manager Barry Weyer Jr. died in a car accident. Owens and Weyer were Christians, so the team decided to memorialize them by putting their initials on a helmet decal shaped like a cross.
That caught the eye of a local Arkansas attorney. After watching the team's second game of the season, he contacted the university's counsel and suggested that the display of religious imagery by a public university violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and was therefore unconstitutional. (A similar display at a private school would not have been problematic.) The counsel agreed and advised the school's athletic department to remove or modify the decal. The team opted to comply by cutting off the upper and lower strokes of the cross, leaving a horizontal bar with the deceased men's initials. But after a religious advocacy group complained, the school issued a new policy, which will allow individual players to voluntarily wear the cross as long as they purchase and apply the decals themselves, with no staff involvement.
Whatever your feelings about this case -- and there are likely to be strong opinions on both sides -- it brings up the interesting intersection of religion and uniforms. Obviously, there are plenty of religious schools that wear religious imagery (like this cross worn by DeSmet Jesuit High School in St. Louis, for example), but what about secular schools?
Let's start with college football. To Uni Watch's knowledge, there's been only one previous instance of a non-religious school playing a game with a cross on its helmets. That came nearly half a century ago, in 1965, when three Tennessee coaches were killed in a car crash. The Vols memorialized them by adding a black cross to their orange "T" helmet logo for the final few games of the '65 season. Tennessee, like Arkansas State, is a public university, but no constitutional issues were raised at the time.
(There's an additional case that qualifies as a footnote: In the wake of the tragic 1970 plane crash that killed 37 players and five coaches on the Marshall football team, the West Virginia Mountaineers honored their intrastate rivals by wearing green crosses on the back of their helmets for spring practice in 1971. The crosses were not worn during a game, however.)
Team-wide use of religious imagery in other North American sports leagues has been rare. One example came in 1992, after New York Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd suffered a neck injury that left him temporarily paralyzed. The Jets showed their support for him by wearing a helmet decal featuring Byrd's uniform number and an ichthys symbol (or a "Jesus fish," as it's commonly known) for the final four games of the season.
Once we move past the realm of team-wide displays of religious icons, there are several additional sub-categories worth mentioning. Let's go one at a time:
Individual players and coaches wearing religious symbols. Lots of past and current uniformed personnel in various sports fall under this heading. For example:
• Not many NFL fans know this, but Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu has worn a little cross on his jersey, just above his nameplate, for most of his career. The NFL's position is that it's OK as long as it's covered by his hair, which it usually is.
• Reigning National League MVP Andrew McCutchen recently began wearing a cross on his armband.
• Former NFL offensive lineman Kevin Mawae liked to create a cross symbol on his face mask with white tape. The NFL made him stop doing it in 2003, saying it violated the league's prohibition of personal messaging on uniforms.
• Former NFL punter Matt Turk defied the "Mawae rule" by making his own face mask cross in 2010, but Turk tried to fly under the NFL's regulatory radar by using dark tape.
• MLB slugger Barry Bonds wore a cross earring for many years.
• Longtime MLB manager Billy Martin routinely wore a cross pin on his cap while skippering various teams.
• Martin's protégé Bucky Dent, who coached for the Reds and managed the Yankees, also wore a cross pin.
• Former MLB pitcher Victor Zambrano wore rosary beads on the mound.
• Former MLB shortstop Nomar Garciaparra routinely wore a guardian angel pin on his wristband throughout his career. (You can read more about this here.)
• Garciaparra's former teammate Manny Ramirez wore a similar pin on Opening Day of 2006.
• Many Jewish boxers have worn the Star of David on their trunks, including former light heavyweight champ Mike Rossman.
• Mike Singletary wore a necklace with a very prominent wooden cross pendant when he was coaching the 49ers.
And of course, these don't include the countless athletes who've worn religious symbols on necklaces tucked inside their jerseys or who have religious tattoos.
Athletes wearing religious attire. Observant athletes in various sports have found ways to incorporate religious garments into their uniforms. Here are a few examples:
• Two Jewish Division I college basketball players have worn yarmulkes on the court: Tamir Goodman, who played for Towson in 2000-01 and 2001-02, and Aaron Liberman, who played last season for Northwestern but has since transferred to Tulane, where he plans to play this fall. (You can read more about this here.)
• Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, a Muslim who played on the Memphis and Indiana State women's basketball teams, became the first Division I athlete to wear a hijab -- the traditional Muslim women's headscarf -- in 2010. (You can read more about athletes wearing hijabs here.)
• Yossi Lipskier, a 9-year-old Jewish boy from Arizona, made news earlier this year when he wore tzitzit -- the knotted fringes attached to the prayer shawl worn by observant Jewish males -- as part of his little league uniform. The umpire initially ruled that he couldn't wear the tzitzit but relented when Yossi's teammates said they'd rather forfeit the game than play without him. (Further details here.)
But not all athletes are permitted to wear religious garments. Case in point: FIBA, the governing body of international basketball, does not allow religious headwear.
Teams and athletes wearing "modest" uniforms. Some teams at religious institutions don't wear religious attire per se but have modified their uniforms to conform to strict religious notions of personal modesty. For example:
• The boys' basketball team at Gate City Christian, a Pentecostal high school in Virginia, wears long pants instead of shorts, because too much exposed skin would violate the school's religious tenets. (Further details here.)
• The girls' basketball team at Beth Chana Academy, a Jewish Orthodox school in Connecticut, wears skirts. In fact, the team is actually called the Skirts! (Further info here.)
• Some female athletes at Yeshiva University have also worn skirts.
Do you know of additional examples that would fit into any of these categories? If so, send them this-a-way.
(Special thanks to Lou DeGeorge, Mark Emge, David Fisher, BJ Lanier, and Jason Yellin for their research assistance.)
Paul Lukas rolls his eyes whenever he hears someone describe a sports uniform as "sacred." 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.