As the accolades continue to pour in regarding New York Giants wideout Odell Beckham Jr.'s highlight-reel catch, here's something you might not have thought about: That catch couldn't have happened a generation ago, because players 20 or 30 years ago didn't wear gloves, and there's absolutely no way Beckham makes that catch bare-handed. In fact, if you look at other examples of players making one-handed catches, you'll find they're all from the gloved era.
That's no knock on Beckham, or on gloves; it's simply an acknowledgment that the rise of gloves constitutes one of the biggest and most unheralded changes in the sport over the past few decades. If you look at an NFL game from, say, the 1980s -- or, for that matter, highlights of famous receptions from that time period, like The Catch by Dwight Clark -- you'll find very few players wearing gloves.
Nowadays, almost every player on the field is wearing them. Gloves have become such a default element on the gridiron that I once wrote a Uni Watch column on the handful of players who don't wear them, because they stand out on the field. And while the first gloves worn by NFL players were little more than glorified baseball batting gloves, today's high-tech football gloves are engineered with a tremendous amount of tack in the palm and fingers. When you stick up your gloved hand and the ball hits it, it's almost like a fly hitting flypaper. That's why one-handed catches were mostly unheard of a generation ago and are semi-routine now.
Beckham was wearing Nike gloves when he made his sensational grab (you can see the swoosh on the back of his right glove), but all of the major uniform and equipment manufacturers offer similar products. How big a difference do these gloves make compared to playing bare-handed? When I mentioned on the Uni Watch Blog that Beckham couldn't have made his catch without gloves, one reader who played football posted the following comment:
"There is a humongous advantage to wearing the gloves of today. It's so big I cannot find another word that describes how much easier it is to catch with gloves than without. Frankly, anyone who's worn them for practice alone knows this. There's virtually no 'sting' to catching hundreds of balls one after the other. None. Then you have the adhesion properties. I'm telling you, it's hard to drop a pass when you use the appropriate technique."
It's right about here that someone usually says, "Oh yeah? Then how come [wide receiver on my favorite team] drops so many balls?" Sure, those jokes are funny. But the reality is that there'd be a lot more drops if everyone went back to playing bare-handed.
Again, none of this is meant as a critique of Beckham, whose catch owed as much to his acrobatic athleticism as to his gloves. And since most of us enjoy seeing those types of athletic plays, you can certainly argue that gloves have made the game more exciting. But whether you're for them or against them, they definitely serve as a marker between eras.